by Sharon Kay Penman
Chronologically, this follows The Devil's Brood, which ended Penman's Henry II trilogy. So this is either the fourth volume of a trilogy, or not a direct sequel.
When his father Henry II dies, Richard inherits the kingdom of England. Almost immediately,he appoints regents and leaves for the Holy Land so that he can lead a crusade to take back Jerusalem from Saladin. Although intense rivalries between Richard and his fellow kings constantly threaten the crusade, their knights succeed in winning battles and gaining territory for Christendom. But the hatred between Richard, the Holy Roman Emperor and Philippe of France cannot be controlled, and one by one the other kings drop out. Meanwhile, back in England Richard's younger brother John plots to steal the crown, forcing Richard into an impossible position – stay in the Holy Land and fulfill his vow to retake Jerusalem against odds stacked against him, or hurry home before his own kingdom is lost?
Joining Richard on his crusade is his sister Joanna and new wife Berengaria. His mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, rules as regent back in England. The lives of these royal women contrast nicely with the warrior world of Richard, providing relatively tranquil breaks between densely-packed descriptions of battles and war tactics. It was interesting to compare the background of these royal women. Johanna, the recently widowed Queen of Sicily, is far more worldly than her young sister-in-law, since her kingdom had quite a bit of contact with the Muslim invaders. Berengaria comes from a far more sheltered background, and her defining characteristic is pious devotion to the Crusade, which ought to make her a perfect wife for Richard, but she always seems to be an afterthought to her ambitious husband.
This is a very richly detailed book; at times, the information contained in its pages is overwhelming. For the most part, Penman keeps the story moving with lively dialogue and entertaining vignettes, but at times the narrative becomes an exposition quagmire that simply must be muddled through.
But overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I learned a lot of new things about the Third Crusade. It's my first foray into Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction (shocking, I know!) and I will definitely be checking out more of her books.
4 out of 5 stars
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