Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman had been lying dormant in my Kindle for more than 3 years. I would start and stop, barely making it beyond the first 20 odd pages over 900 days, never really finding it gripping enough to pursue further; despite it being a work of Historical Fictions, which as all know is my especial weakness. Somehow, the work did not seem to settle with me and it lay abandoned for years! However recently, as work pressure kept increasing, I looked about for an easy but not particularly frivolous read, and Here Be Dragons again came up as I dug through my collection. An ever optimist, I thought I will give the novel yet another try, my umpteenth plus one attempt! And this time, surprise, surprise, I succeeded!
The novel is set in 13th century Wales and England, tracing the life of the foremost Prince of Wales, Llewelyn and his work in uniting the split kingdom of Wales into one united nation. The story begins with 10 year old Llewelyn who is trying adjust to the counties of England, homesick for the wildness of his native Wales and angry at the murder of his father by his uncles, in a bid to conquer Northern Wales, which was ruled by the former. His mother had now remarried into the powerful Corbet clan and while he had a kindly step father, Llewelyn yearned for his homeland. Opportunity finally come by way of the death of his mother’s brother and which brings the family back to Wales and it is at this point the 14 year old Llewelyn begins his bid for his inheritance in Northern Wales with sights much higher of uniting and ruling one undivided Wales! Across the border, trouble is brewing in England. Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s sons are at conflict with each other, in the pursuit of the English crown. Death and wars, eliminate all Princes, until the contest is down to only two – the legendary Richard and John. John, the errant young Prince knows he can never match up to the military genius of his brother, and instead intrigues and plots for the crown he desperately wants, often failing and seeking intervention of Eleanor’s for a pardon from his powerful brother. Among such changing political dynamics, John discovers he has an illegitimate daughter from a Norman nobelwoman who is now dead and whose family refuses to take any accountability of the child. John brings this 5 year old girl, Joanne to his establishment and brings her up as his daughter, showering her with love and care, through his marriage to Isabelle, a girl barely two years older to Joanne and through his ascendancy to the throne of England when Richard dies during yet another battle for the Holy Crusade. Joanne, often neglected and berated by her mother, thrives in the affection that she now receives and her heart and loyalty to John brooks no hindrances to her father’s wishes even when the she receives the alarming news of her father having betrothed her to the Llewelyn, at the age of 14, exiling her to a land she does not know and a language she does not understand. As she ventures into this new life and land, she discovers, an extraordinary land and an extraordinary man, who now claims her affections and loyalty, by the sheer kindness and goodness as he helps her navigate through the intricacies of the Welsh court and culture. However as tension, increases between John and Llewelyn, Joanne will be forced to take sides, and make choices between the two men, who form the very pillars of her life!
I am so glad that I finally managed to read this novel. While the whole tagging of “historical romance” initially put me off, I realized as I read through the pages, that not only was this tagging incorrect but misleading! Ok, so there is romance between Llewelyn and Joanne, but it is just one of the many other elements of the book. Somewhere around page 200 or so, they get married and there is brief romance, but after that, the book is about the life they built together, the children and the dynamics between Joanne and Llewelyn’s step son and of course, the extremely volatile and constant changing politics in England, including the epoch making signing of Magna Carta and the recognition of Wales as a independent kingdom. Ms. Penman provides deep insight into history with details on who, what, where and why. She wonderfully crafts out the characters . with much sympathy and understanding. Her King John is both a wonderful father/husband and a kind hearted liege lord and at the same time he is also an intriguing distrustful autocratic ruler. The central character of Llewelyn is of course absolutely magnificent – a brilliant military leader, a great political mind, with incredible maturity and patience, whose of love of life sweeps away not only the fictional characters, but also the reader. The other supporting characters, including Isabella, Richard, the other illegitimate son of John, Rhys and Catherine are very well drawn out and support the main cast brilliantly. The only person I could not really understand was Joanne – while I sympathized with the orphan and I understood the divided loyalties of a 15 year old, her later actions, which I understand are actually a historical fact, left me completely cold. Ms. Penmen made much effort to do away such blemishes from her character and she succeeds to a great extent , but I guess I have a closed mind and some things to me are beyond understanding. The language is easy to read and the highlighting events of the era are all captured, wonderfully capsuled and presented in wonderful background. Often historical novels, become history books instead of works of fiction, because of the in-depth history, that the authors get into. Ms. Penman manages to find a happy balance between serious history and creative fiction, making this novel a wonderful read!
Its a 800 page chunkster, but I seriously recommend sticking to it till the end!