October 28, 2013
Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman (Review)
Author: Sharon Kay Penman
First published: 1985
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I treated myself to this beautiful book while in Vancouver, which has HUGE bookshops, all in English, where I spent hours. I call it a treat because it was ridiculously expensive. Sometimes I think that people who buy "real" paper books must be millionaires. But I just felt like buying a nice book, you know, and I was not disappointed! Recently I have noticed that I feel more invested in the "real" books, either because I choose so well or because I've already paid so much money for this - psychology in action! But I think I would have loved this book in any format.
The list of things I love about Here Be Dragons begins with the title.You know, this is the phrase that was written over unknown territories on old maps. I ADORE old maps, and the cool thing here is that the book is about Wales, and not only was it completely misunderstood by England, they also have a dragon on their flag. Clever, eh? The next cool thing is the setting: the story unfolds between 1183 and 1234 which means it covers the end of Henry Plantagenet's rule, his children's rivalries, the rules of Richard Lionheart and John Lackland and ends with the beginning of Henry III's rule. Rather epic, right? But the story is focused on Wales, where at this time Llywelyn the Great rose to power and more or less united his country against the unceasing England's conquest. While I knew quite a lot about English kings and the situation between England and France at this time, I was completely ignorant about what was happening in Wales. All we got in the textbooks was that the castles were built there at this time as part of the conquest and some beautiful pictures. So the story is really interesting from the historical point of view, especially because it's very well researched and is true to the remaining historical sources.
I wouldn't have liked the story so much if it was purely historical, but it is also a very good romance. The main heroine is Joanna, an illegitimate daughter of John Lackland, who was married to Llewelyn as part of the treaty with Wales. It was horrible for her to go to another country with different language, where everybody saw her as a foe. And she was only 14 then! She loved her father and she came to love her husband, but needless to say the treaty between them didn't live long. Torn between the two men she loved, she played an important role as an ambassador of peace between England and Wales and her entreaties to her father not once saved quite some Welsh lives, including her husband's. She, John and Llevelyn are all very interesting and well-developed characters, and I was really involved in their relationships. There are some rather graphic scenes of Joanna and Llewelyn's private life that I found rather indecent and out of place, but that really didn't bother me that much. I guess this was done for certain public that needs to know EXACTLY how well they got on sometimes :) Well, that doesn't include me! However, this is just a fly in the ointment.
The description of everyday life (mostly Norman everyday life, of course) was not romanticized at all, which I also liked very much. The realities were very harsh back then, with horrible medicine, childbirth and life conditions. All this is shown very well in the book. What never fails to shock me most, although it's a well-known fact, is the disposal of women as part of treaties and alliances, no matter what age they are. It was a usual thing to marry off a daughter at twelve and expect a husband to consummate the marriage immediately. Of course, some men were kind enough to wait, but they were in minority. Moreover, married life in itself was very harsh for women. When in Wales, Joanna was surprised at finding out that, unlike in England and France, a wife could divorce or request compensation if she found her husband unfair to her (shock!!) and that husbands were not accustomed to beating their wives (unheard of!). So, well, welsh women were rather lucky, but that was certainly an exception.
In my book:
It is a very engaging historical fiction and romance, so I would definitely recommend it to anybody who is interested in either of the genres. It will keep you up late at night, I promise :)