This is a biographical novel of Richard III of England. First thing you should know is this isn't the Richard of Shakespeare. It's not even the Richard most historians accept, although it's a portrait I was softened up for long before I first read this by the historical novels of Rosemary Hawley Jarman (particularly her <i>The King's Grey Mare</i> about Edward IV's queen, Elizabeth Woodville), the famous novel of mystery great Josephine Tey, <i>The Daughter of Time</i> which has her fictional sleuth investigate the true character of Richard, and Elizabeth Peters <i>The Murders of Richard III</i>.
As far as I know, historians still believe in the villainous uncle painted by the Tudors who they claim killed his young nephews whose throne he supposedly usurped. Goodness knows that when I took English History at Columbia University, my British professor was scornful Richard could be seen otherwise. But if you can keep an open mind, well, it's certainly impossible I think not to fall in love with Penman's Richard, who we meet as a boy of seven.
Penman writes a beguiling, well-researched historical tapestry that I found engrossing and moving. I'm a fan of her writing in general. Not just in this novel, but her <i>Here Be Dragons</i> about medieval Wales are among my top favorite historical novels. Her characters feel both true to their time but fleshed out and real, and she gives their tragedies an excruciating poignancy.
I also like that she ends her novels with Author's Notes that untangle the history from the fiction and explain her liberties with what is known, the accepted view of historians and her rationale. This book is obviously well-researched and thought out, whatever you might think of her controversial take.
(And my friends out there who know I have a weakness for maligned characters? Well, I think the defenses of Richard III by authors like Tey, Jarman and Penman definitely gave me a soft spot for them and a willingness to look beyond appearances and suspect there might be more to history than what we find in textbooks--or college history classes.)