Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

I continue to be enthralled by Sharon Kay Penman’s works of historical fiction. Here Be Dragons is the first in the Welsh trilogy, and is concerned with 13th century Wales, the rule of Llewelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) and his wife Joanna, bastard daughter of England’s King John. The book opens with Llewelyn at age 10, unhappy in his new status as stepson to an Englishman; his Welsh culture was drastically different from that of the nearby neighbor, and he found it difficult to assimilate. It only took a few years for him to go home to Wales and undertake to regain the crown that was rightfully his. One of the unique and questionable points of Welsh culture was that sons were expected to share their father’s property, rather than it all (unfairly) falling to the eldest son as in England. This most often resulted in fratricide, and family violence had previously cheated Llewelyn of his birthright to rule. Llewelyn went to war at 15, and won himself many decades of power in Wales, but almost constant conflict and challenges to his power, too. Alongside the story of young Llewelyn, we meet Joana, on her 5th birthday, living with her ostracized mother; her mother’s death just a few days later takes her to the court of her father, John, who eventually became king of England.

The book follows Joana and Llewelyn, their split loyalties, their many friends, relatives, and associates… and as always in Penman’s epic novels of British royal history, we’re treated to the tangled webs of intrigue, betrayal, and power struggles. One of the most powerful threads in this novel – arguably the dominant one – is the romance of Llewelyn and Joana’s marriage. I find myself most charmed by the threads of romance that Penman reliably delivers. I love the court dramas and the intrigue, but I love the romances, too. I’m not a reader of romance novels, and that’s not what this is; it’s so much more. The drama, the tragedy, the heartbreaking complications of family dynamics, the strained loyalties… this is truly a sweeping epic deserving of every minute of concentration it demands. I read these 700 pages in just over 2 days – while on break from work, yes, but given the time to devote to it, it was easy to do.

I find myself learning history from Penman somewhat. This is a slippery slope, to learn history from fiction, as I’ve discussed before. But if it’s ever permissible, Penman might be your author; she is very faithful to her extensive research, and her Author’s Notes at the back of each book offer good outlines of where fact meets fiction.

My first Penman read was The Reckoning, which happens to be the third in this Welsh trilogy. (Once I get through Falls the Shadow I’ll have to decide if I want to go back and reread The Reckoning yet again!) That’s where my fascination with Welsh culture, customs and language began. I am interested in traveling to Wales to explore what I’ve learned, but I’m also sorry to know that Llewelyn, alas, is long gone from our world! If you haven’t picked up Penman yet, I must say – do it now! And I’m off to pass this book on to Pops for his enjoyment.

2 Responses

  1. I am currrently reading her newest one and love it! She has a starting way to engage the readers through the entire book!

  2. […] be dragons,” which is charmingly fantastical and filled with possibilities. (There is also a good book by that title.) The commons are about the wild; but they’re also about human society, […]

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