‘Here Be Dragons’ by Sharon Kay Penman

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★★

A family saga which follows members of the Plantagenet dynasty and the Welsh royal house in the 12th and 13th century. These two dynasties intermarried, but also waged war and rebellion against each other. Internally, each family struggled with issues of succession and their family dynamics shaped the political landscape of their countries. The point of focus is mostly on Llywelyn the Great, a prince of Wales, and his wife, Joanna Plantagenet, the daughter of King John, and how their marriage is tested by the conflicts between the Welsh and the new Norman kings England.

Joanna is one of prince John’s many illegitimate children. Although he busy fighting his brother Richard Lionheart scheming to win the crown when Joanna grew up, he takes care that she grows up at court, receives a good education and feels loved. She grows into a kind-hearted girl, with few political ambitions but with a strong need to be loved and liked by everyone. Across the border , Llewelyn grows up with a strong awareness of his legacy as nobleman of Wales, a country threatened to the West by Norman expansion and by internal struggles. As a teenager, the boy begins to gather followers and fight to unite the Welsh under his control – an incredible goal that he actually achieves! As an adult, Llewelyn an extremely ambitious, confident man with a great love for his country, for women but also for his family. Joanna and Llewelyn’s marriage is arranged, despite their differences in age (she is fourteen and he is thirty-three). Joanna must travel to a new and foreign country, whose language she does not speak and whose people does not want her. She is terribly young and naive, but together she and her husband manage to build a close and caring relationship.

Problems soon arise though. King John is ruthless politicians, willing to do horrible things in order to gain more power. Llewelyn is arrogant, proud and determined to keep Wales out of his control, and soon war between Joanna’s husband and father is brewing. Also, Llewelyn’s oldest illegitimate child, Gruffydd, is jealous of his father’s love, fears loosing his inheritance and disagrees with his father’s attempts to placate their English neighbors. He blames his stepmother and young half-brother, Davydd, for what is happening to his relationship with his father, the succession and the condition of Wales (which he is partly right to do, since Joanna wants her son to inherit and does play a part in Llewelyn’s policy making). There are power-struggles between families and within the royal family and Joanna and Llewelyn must navigate their way through it all.

I had problems with this book from the outset, because Llewelyn as a child was very badly written. No ten year old has as adult thougths as this one. I was particularly uncertain about Llewelyn’s inner reflections on the differences between the Normans, Saxons and Welsh. Thoughts about the equality between cultures and societies. Sure, midevial Europe was did not have nation states and nationalism as such, and countries consisted often of people who spoke many different languages and/or dialects and belonged to different ethnic groups. However, I do not believe that medieval people were so conscious and articulated in their views on multicultarism. Certainly not a child in the Middle Ages.

Sadly, the problems did not disappear. The dialogue and inner monologues are so stilted, it ruined the plot completely for me. Bad prose can be extremely ruinous to a novel. Which makes sense, because literature is an art that builds on language. Since you access the characters, plot and setting through the prose of the novel, these things become colored by the quality of the prose. When the prose is bad, like in this instance, it ruins the reader’s perception of the characters. For instance, several people in the book spend a lot of time explaining things that would have been absolutely obvious to their listener. It just makes the dialogue seem fake! And thus the characters become fake, although a lot of care has been taken to make them three-dimensional (e.g. king John is both a caring father and a ruthless king who is willing to murder children, Joanna is kind, but unable to see her stepson’s point-of-view and Gruffydd likewise).

A strong point for this book is the way the love-story is developed. To our 21th century eyes, the way young women were treated in the Middle Ages seems absolutely horrid, and it is uncomfortable to read about a fourteen-year old married of to a man twice her age. It is to Penman’s credit that she does not shy away from the issues that come into her modern readers’ heads, but that she also makes it clear that this was the norm for nobel women at the time – and that this was widely accepted at the time. Joanna and Llewelyn do not question whether or not they should be married, but they are not entirely comfortable having sex in the beginning (Llewelyn waits until he feels his wife has grown up a bit). Joanna is charmed by her knowledgable and handsome husband, and he in turn is delighted with her gentle sense of humor and beauty.

Penman clearly has done a lot of research on the political history of this time period; there is plenty of detail on the family relations between the Plantagenets, the relationship between the Norman nobility and the Welsh. But scattered across the book were pieces of anachronism that annoyed the hell out of me!! How can a girl be thought to have ‘gypsy looks’ by her stepmother in 13th century Wales, when gypsies did not arrive in Europe before centuries later?

I just could not enjoy this book, although it is well-researched and the characters are well-drawn, the dialogue and the author’s general writing is just annoying to me. I cannot say I will seek out Here Be Dragon‘s sequels. How it got such rave-reviews on Goodreads, I do not know!

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