The title of Sharon Kay Penman’s highly anticipated new novel, Lionheart, says it all. This is the story of Richard Plantagenet: king, soldier, count, mother’s favorite, crusader. Yet it hardly comes close to actually describing the depth and breadth of this chronicle and the lyrical way Penman brings this legend vividly to life.
Lionheart encompasses the time immediately after Richard and his fellow king, Philippe of France, embark on a crusade to free Jerusalem from Saladin’s rule through Richard’s ultimate decision to return to rescue his kingdom from the machinations of his younger brother, John. Richard is portrayed as headstrong and arrogant, yet justifiably so since his military prowess was ferocious. Penman writes Richard with all his faults yet also his strengths, but the story is at its best when Richard’s sister Joanna takes the stage. Joanna is truly her mother’s daughter, and her scenes ripple with conviction and personality. She, along with other secondary characters, both real and fictional, serves to give us the most intimate look at the Lion, who is equal parts myth and truth.
Lionheart is not an easy book to read, as it is filled with an author’s nightmare of similarly named people and a good deal of information-building necessary to illuminate the story. The beautifully described settings and the characters’ interactions are simply outstanding, however, and I was enthralled by Penman’s gift of placing you directly inside the story to experience all of the grittiness of war. Richard was a complex man who often polarized those who knew him into two camps: you either loved him or you hated him, and there was no middle ground. After reading Lionheart, I predict that there will be many more who will feel the enigmatic pull of Richard’s personality. Penman has written a tour de force that has me ready for the sequel right this minute. Highly recommended.