I'm a great fan of Sharon Kay Penman's <i>The Sunne in Splendour</i>, about Richard III and <i>Here Be Dragons</i> set in medieval Wales. They're two of my favorite books of historical friction, both unforgettable and moving me to tears. <i>Here Be Dragons</i>, despite being rooted soundly in history also is one of the most moving love stories I'd ever read. The last Penman novel I read though, based on Richard the Lionhearted, was a disappointment. It dragged. Frankly, through much of it I was bored.
So I started this book with some trepidation-but I found this was more the Penman of old, not the one that disappointed. This didn't for me quite reach the heights of those two favorite books--but it was still a terrific read that made me feel for the characters and feel transported to another time. It wasn't an easy read at times--not because of style or skill--but because I know English history too well to know this would end well. And Penman has a gift for making you care--even as you're exasperated with her characters. A character describes the battling cousins flaws pretty aptly. King Stephen too easily influenced and not resolute enough; Empress Maud incapable of listening to anyone and way too stubborn. And poor England caught in the middle. The tragedy of it all being, at least as Penman presents it, is that Maud *did* learn from her mistakes--and if she had received the kind of support she deserved and would have gotten had she been male--from her father, her husband, Stephen himself, might have made a decent monarch. I wound up feeling for both. And her picture of the young Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine and the early, happy part of their marriage was involving, even fascinating.
And frankly happy to follow characters I didn't know about, either because they're historically obscure or fictional. Because history doesn't leave much room for happy endings with real lives sadly enough. This one is well worth the read.