Friday, February 17, 2012

Here Be Dragons (Book Review)

Many thanks to Quotidian Grace for directing me to Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction.  Here Be Dragons is a fantastic read.

Set in thirteenth century Wales, this first novel in a trilogy focuses on the seemingly unending conflicts over lands and castles among the English, Normans, and Welsh by zeroing in on the loves and heartbreaks of Welsh Prince Llewelyn and his wife Joanna, daughter of King John of England.  Many readers will recognize some of the characters, if from not history, then from a mingling of Shakespeare and film -- John's mother Eleanor of Acquitaine, his brother Richard, and John himself.

The novel offers a lush portrayal of landscapes, personalities, intrigues, gentility, brutality, and relationships forged by both politics and romance, all woven into a fascinating tale by a meticulous researcher and consummate storyteller.  My only complaint? Welsh is a confounding language, and so the names are difficult to track.  But as my husband's family were Welsh coal miners who arrived on Ellis Island in the early twentieth century,  my interest in the lives of their medieval forbears prodded me forward.

I did a bit of googling, and the image above is of one of Lleweyln's castles, Criccieth.  According to the site where I found the photo, "Criccieth Castle, established by the Welsh Prince Llywelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) and later enlarged by King Edward the First of England, is a landmark for miles around and dominates the small town. Welsh castles usually typify the history of the English and the Welsh nations. The English built the castles, the Welsh knocked them down and in-between they fought each other. However, in Criccieth's case the Welsh built the castle, the English tried to knock it down, the English then rebuilt it and in between, they fought each other."

Behind all that knocking down and fighting, the Welsh and their neighbors found plenty of time for personal drama.   Medieval Wales was no place for the faint of heart, whether woman, man, or child, but it made for great stories of human courage, valor, foolishness, cruelty, ambition, and love.

I'm working on the second novel in the trilogy now.


  1. Sounds like good reading... how I look forward to summer and ultimately graduation. Pleasure reading! Ahhh!! Enjoy and thanks for the review. I'd love to visit Wales.

  2. I KNEW you'd love it! Great review and evocative photo. It makes me put Wales on my wish list, too. Although I've been to Great Britain and Ireland several times I have never been any closer to Wales than Bath.

  3. I've been to Wales, but very long ago. I'd love to go again now that I'm developing a sense of its history.