The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

This is Sharon Kay Penman’s first novel, although not the first of hers that I’ve read. I think she did an amazing job with her debut novel.

This is the fictionalized life of King Richard III of England, whose brief reign from 1483-85 ended with his death on the battlefield. We meet Richard – Dickon to his family and close friends – at age six, playing in the woods with his idolized oldest brother, Edward or Ned, under the rule of King Harry of Lancaster. Harry’s queen, Marguerite d’Anjou, refuses to trust the Duke of York, Dickon and Ned’s father; her unrest leads to a war in which Dickon loses a brother and his father, and Ned is crowned king. King Edward and his unpopular Queen Elizabeth rule for 22 years, with constant rebellions and threats to his leadership, the ongoing War of the Roses raging between the houses of York and Lancaster. During this time, Dickon is Edward’s most trusted friend, advisor, and military commander. Upon Edward’s sudden death, he requests that Dickon safeguard his minor son’s position as heir to the throne, which Dickon is happy to do. But the philandering Edward’s engagement to another woman prior to marrying Elizabeth is made known, thus (under the laws of the time) making his marriage null, his children illegitimate, and his son no proper heir at all. At this point Dickon is crowned King Richard III, although not without misgivings. We then anxiously attend Dickon’s disturbed and brief reign, still beset by betrayals and treachery, treason and rebellion, until he dies in battle.

Richard III is also the king whose two boy-nephews, “the princes in the tower,” disappeared during their imprisonment under his rule and are understood to have been killed. (These are Edward’s sons, the elder being the intended heir to the throne.) History has tended to hold Richard responsible for killing the boys, possible threats to his throne. But as Josephine Tey did in her Daughter of Time, Penman presents a different story, one that has Richard innocent of their murders and regretful of their loss. I think she does a fine job supporting this theory – and of course this is fiction, remember, we still don’t know what happened to them! – and within her story, Richard is a virtuous and upstanding man who would never have done such a thing. In this question, as in so many details of her stories large and small, Penman explains her decisions (and tells exactly where history ends and fiction begins) in the author’s note at the back of the book. (Attention to historical accuracy and an explanation of where she began to embellish are several of the most important strengths to Penman’s work, in my opinion.)

The action of the book covers less than thirty years, but in great detail. We get to know intimately not only Richard and his siblings, but their mother, and the reviled Elizabeth and her daughters, and various friends and attendants. Richard is raised alongside his cousin, daughter of the treasonous Earl of Warwick, Anne Neville, and their youthful expectation of marriage is finally fulfilled after many hardships (including Anne’s forced marriage to another ill-fated challenger to the crown). Anne & Richard’s love story is one of the uniting threads of this books, heartbreaking and touching and sweet and sad. (I am noticing that Penman is reliable in including deeply satisfying, fully-wrought romances within her novels.) The story of Bess, the eldest of Edward & Elizabeth’s children, is another sad and romantic tale.

The sketching out of so many individual characters, even some rather minor ones, is another of Penman’s strengths. I loved Francis and Veronique very much.

At over 900 pages, this read does require some commitment; but it’s amazing how easy it is to get lost in it and watch those pages fall away. Don’t be afraid of the page count. Penman really creates a world and draws us in; we love her characters (and dare I say hate some of them too!) and it becomes difficult to put this book down. I very highly recommend this and everything Penman has written, and I think there’s a fair chance I’m going to jump straight into Here Be Dragons!

One Response

  1. […] thoughts: reading the end, Kristin King Author, Devourer of Books, Vulpes Libris, Semicolon, Pages of Julia […]

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