Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman

falls the shadowI call Sharon Kay Penman one of my favorite authors, and yet it has been far too long since I read any of her work. It felt so good to curl up inside Falls the Shadow.

I began reading Penman with The Reckoning, back in 2001 or thereabouts I believe – that was on a trip overseas with my father. I fell in love with the Wales pictured in that historical novel, and I loved the romance and tone of epic historical tragedy. Falls the Shadow comes just before that book in Penman’s Welsh trilogy, so I recognized the youthful characters in this novel that I loved so much in that one; kind of a strange way to go about reading a series (or a history), but it was enjoyable this way, too. Often in life, I think, we learn stories out of chronological order; so be it.

This book centers on the fate of Simon de Montfort in 13th century England, under King Henry III’s ill-fated rule, and the parallel story of Llewellyn, Prince of Wales. Nell, Henry’s sister and daughter of King John, was widowed at 15 and took an oath of chastity; but her friendship with Simon would challenge that oath, and eventually break it so they could marry. Simon was a minor lord, and a Frenchman to boot; their union scandalized both the Church and the English power-brokers, who would have married Nell into a political alliance rather than for love. Simon, with Nell behind (or even often beside) him, would challenge the weak King Henry to stand by his word, to allow Englishmen a say in their own lives. They had four sons and a daughter, who play large roles in The Reckoning.

Falls the Shadow spends some time in Wales, as well, on the rivalry of several generations of princes: the sons of Llewellyn Fawr: Davydd and Gruffydd; and Gruffydd sons’s: Owain, Llewellyn, Davydd, and Rhodri. Welsh tradition divides land and property among the sons (even the illegitimate ones), but Llewellyn Fawr recognized that this division of political power among princes led to a Welsh weakness that would only be exploited by their shared English enemy. Instead, he hands all his power to Davydd, beginning the bloody battles between brothers that continue at the close of this book.

So, Falls the Shadow deals with the political intrigue and power struggles of Wales and England (and involving their neighbors as well); charts the filial intrigues & alliances of both Welsh and English royalty; sees battles fought and power debated; and tells the romantic stories of such marriages for love as that of Llewellyn and Joanna, and Simon and Nell. This is one of Penman’s shorter books at nearly 600 pages of tightly spaced small print; and yet I’ve never seen so much type go by so quickly. For being historical fiction with an epic sweep and involving those bygone times in which everyone seems to have the same names… Penman’s fiction is positively riveting. I am completely lost in it, and sorry to see it end. Luckily, she still has several books I haven’t gotten to yet.

As she writes in the Author’s Note, Penman originally intended for this to be the story of both Simon and Llewellyn; but she found the two men each too large to share the stage, so Falls the Shadow became Simon’s story and The Reckoning, Llewellyn’s. Just as the Welsh play into this novel, though, Simon’s children will play in Llewelyn’s story, too.

Penman’s attention to detail feels very real; and I’ve written on this before, but it’s my understanding that she is very faithful to the historical record. I know she makes overseas research trips because I’ve followed them on her blog. And yet for all the research, history, and fact, the dialogue and the emotions feel both relevant and absolutely real.

I love this author. If you like large, sweeping, engrossing stories that involve both large-scale and individual-scale humanity – do check out Sharon Kay Penman.

Rating: 8 swords.

2 Responses

  1. wonderful; well done! I will have to return to these myself

    love the reminiscences….

    • I have a bunch of hers if you want to borrow. She’s still wonderful!

      Yes, that was the best book of that trip – my first to Europe I believe – I also read Lance’s book It’s Not About the Bike on that trip. Both borrowed from you. Remember?

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