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.

book beginnings on Friday: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Thanks to Katy at A Few More Pages for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am loving Sharon Kay Penman these days.

This is the first in the Welsh trilogy. My experience with this author actually started with The Reckoning, the third in the same, so I’m out of order, but no matter. Here are two beginnings for you today; between them, they set the book up very nicely.

From the prologue:

Theirs was a land of awesome grandeur, a land of mountains and moorlands and cherished myths. They called it Cymru and believed themselves to be the descendants of Brutus and the citizens of ancient Troy.

And from Book 1, Chapter 1: Shropshire, England, July 1183:

He was ten years old and an alien in an unfriendly land, made an unwilling exile by his mother’s marriage to a Marcher border lord. His new stepfather seemed a kindly man, but he was not of Llewelyn’s blood, not one of the Cymry, and each dawning day in Shropshire only intensified Llewelyn’s heartsick longing for his homeland.

And so it begins. Stay tuned for my review, tomorrow.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Yet another hit for Amy, my sci-fi friend. She’s 4-for-4 now, by my memory: first she gave me a (rare!) copy of Thank Heaven Fasting (the non-sci-fi outlier); then lent me The Hemingway Hoax; then recommended Soulless and now Kushiel’s Dart.

This is truly an epic masterpiece of world-building. I will go so far as to mention J.R.R. Tolkien.

I am a little bit challenged to categorize this story further; sci-fi I suppose it is. It is also speculative fiction? These genres are a little out of my league! There is some romance; there is plenty of sex. There is political and courtly intrigue. Think Tolkien for the world-building, and then add Philippa Gregory for the courtly intrigue and playful sex, even Sharon Kay Penman’s attention to detail; but it’s never slow! Oh no, I read these 901 pages (901!) in a two-day weekend. Many long hours and some lost sleep, but well worth it.

I don’t expect to be able to do much with plot summation, but I’ll try and give you a taste. The people of Terre d’Ange worship the demigod Elua and his Companions; the words he gave them to live by are, “love as thou wilt.” Love – or more to the point, sex – is considered a form of worship, and an entire class of men and women are raised from birth to be Servants of Naamah, the goddess-prostitute. They’re trained, then, in courtly manners as well as sexual tricks, which they perform for fees until the House that trained them has been paid off, and then they are free to continue in business for themselves or to pursue whatever path they choose.

Phèdre would have belonged to one of the Houses of the Servants of Naamah, but she was born flawed, or marked, by the dart of Kushiel, the one of Elua’s companions who loves pain. For her, pain and pleasure are forever linked. She is raised by an individual, not a House, and trained for a specialized kind of service, one that combines pain and degradation with sex. Her patron/caregiver/adopted parent is Anafiel Delaunay, and he has more in mind than the profits of her work; he trains her not only as a very high-class courtesan, but as an information-gathering multilingual scholar-spy. It is unclear to the young Phèdre what Anafiel’s political goals are, but she is very talented at playing her own role in his game, and she is deeply committed. Anafiel is a beloved father figure.

All of this transpires in the first third or less of the book, but I’ll stop here. Phèdre gets involved in matters of state much larger than she could ever have expected, and it will take all her formidable skills to protect herself and those she loves – and maybe, to save her nation.

I found Kushiel’s Dart to be incredibly engrossing. I couldn’t put this book down; I just couldn’t bear to leave Phèdre in a predicament. I came to love and root for her companions; I was invested in this story. I recommend it to anyone who likes to get lost in another world – and the world of Terre d’Ange and her neighboring nations is most definitely “other,” although there are recognizable traces of our own.

Amy tells me that this is the first in a trilogy, and there are three trilogies; but she assures us that each trilogy stands alone. This first installment stands alone outstandingly well too, although I won’t say you won’t be tempted to keep reading further! She also assures us that the books, if anything, improve as the series develop. All good news there.

Has anyone else discovered these outstanding epic novels? Anyone tempted to? I recommend!

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