Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher, Year: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985
Other Works: The Sunne in Splendor
Flags: Moderate language, Adult themes, Explicit references
Rating: A, or Great Read
Challenge: 100 Books
Premise: A King's daughter is married to a neighboring country's Prince as a token of peace. However, new family ties prove difficult when conflicts arise.
First off, it took me six months to finish Here Be Dragons. You read me right. It feels decievingly light, small enough to fit in a handbag. Although it couldn't be construed as a "light" read—all you have to do is flip through to realize that it's quite substantial—this book reads heavy.
Penman chronicles the lives of Llewelyn the Great of Wales and King John of England. These two leaders connect themselves through the marriage of John's illegitamite daughter, Joanna, to the much older Welsh Prince. She lives with Lewelyn and learns the customs and ways of the Welsh. Family ties are strained however, as Lewelyn's existing children try to accept his new wife and when English interests conflict with Welsh ones, leaving Joanna caught in the middle.
Penman's extensive research of her chosen topic could not be better demonstrated. She could never be accused of not being thorough. This skill has pros and cons, however, because it makes some sections read more like a history text than a novel. But, after awhile—because you'll have the time—Penman's storytelling style becomes more comfortable. The first onslaught of names and titles causes disorientation, but then it becomes more of a parade of people, gently making their way in the background, and only the most important and memorable characters stand out. They make themselves known; there's no need to "keep track."
What I love about Here Be Dragons is similar to why I love Tracy Chevalier—an author who takes a piece of artwork, together with a few loose facts, and lets the imagination run riot. Penman does the same thing with a list of names and dates. She takes what history provides and adds motivations, political ambitions, loyalties, love. And the result is a plethora of amazing characters and carefully entangled relationships. She leads us through the spectrum of emotions: the contended bliss of a happy marriage to the endless despair of betrayal to the urgent violence of war to the heartbreaking frustration of disappointment. And I have to say that I don't know that I've ever felt so enveloped in a new world as I did in this book. I've been sucked into books before, but never have a felt so at home there, so informed. As if it were natural for me to be there, watching the events unfold.
This is not a story of a couple incidents, tied together by a few main characters. This story is a saga. And really, when you try to boil it down (if that's even possible), Here Be Dragons is about the tested and tried love between Llewelyn and Joanna. A love that thrives in the cracks of the concrete, flourishing under impossible circumstances, nurished only because neither will accept failure. Fraught with hardship, they find a way, and in their determination, a hope for the future is born. Although, in the end, I suppose the same could be said of Llewelyn and his fierce loyalty to the land, Gywnedd, to his people—in a way, he was wed to her, too.
This book is one of those that you could never sit down and read hour upon hour, although I wouldn't call it one that was easy to put down. More because of its sheer density. It's one that had to be digested in sections. It requires time to ponder. Just “one more chapter” before bed will find you reading in the wee small hours. For me, it was absolutely worth the commitment, and I am looking forward to tackling the other two books in the trilogy—sometime soon.