The Queen's Man - Sharon Kay Penman

I dithered between a three and four star rating with this. Sharon Kay Penman is one of my favorite writers of historical fiction, up there with the likes of Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Dorothy Dunnett. Penman's The Sunne in Splendour and Here Be Dragons, set in Plantagenet times in England and Wales, are books I rated five stars and are among the most moving books I've ever read. The Queen's Man is not of that caliber, and it's probably unfair to compare them at all. The other two novels are sweeping doorstopper epics of over 700 pages spanning lifetimes and dealing with the reigns of princes. This 290-page book taking place over a few months beginning in December of 1192 is a very different animal--as stated in the subtitle it's a "medieval mystery." Think Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books.

And by those terms this book compares well, and has many of the same pleasures, and compensations for the differences. No, Penman isn't going to give Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey a run for their money. The resolution wasn't clever and you'll find nothing deep here--this isn't Eco's The Name of the Rose by any means. But did I like this? Really like this? I did. I've been sick with a cold and really needed sleep and I can't tell you how hard it was to put this book down last night unfinished. Penman's sleuth Justin de Quincey isn't, at least at this point in the first book, as beguiling a character as Brother Cadfael, but if anything comes through it's Penman's love and thorough knowledge of this period, and she sweeps you in and out of a Queen's antechamber with as much aplomb as an alehouse or gaol, populating this book with people from all walks of medieval English life. And the "queen" of the title is Eleanor of Aquitaine--and whenever she appears in the pages--all too rarely and briefly--I'm riveted to the page. Penman draws her charisma well. And whether she's taking you into a Lazar house or a horse fair, I felt transported by a sure hand. So yes, this was fun. I relished it.

On a personal note, this was a Christmas gift by a friend who knew I admired Penman but had never read her Justin de Quincey mysteries. The book she got me is this hardcover edition with this lovely cover with an embossed seal and gilt lettering that reminded me of what a sensuous experience it can be to read a book. A real book between covers. No doubt that contributed to the enjoyment.