Once again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by another great historical novel – A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman. Penman is a well known and respected author of medieval historical fiction with a focus on Wales, France and England. In this tale, she takes us to the twelfth century and the reign of King Richard The Lionheart.
A King’s Ransom is the follow up to Lionheart and tells the story of King Richard I’s imprisonment in Germany at the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria and Emperor Heinrich VI and of his battle to win back his Kingdom from his rapacious brother John.
I admit having some trepidation to reading a novel about Richard only because so many books have been written about him and not many have been good. Stories about his reign can easily go from factual to fantastical very quickly. What I enjoyed about Penman’s storytelling is her treatment of his legendary status: she makes Richard larger than life yet she manages to ground him. Richard is an imperfect character rife with flaws, poor decision making skills and bugbears like the rest of us. He’s a great soldier, a mediocre king and a poor husband. This is a far cry from the exaggerated representations of him on screen and in most fiction.
In A King’s Ransom, Richard is in trouble from page one. The novel begins with Richard and his men being thrown mercilessly onto Aquileia en route home from Crusade. The shipwreck puts him in a dangerous cat and mouse game with the Duke of Austria. Leopold, a greedy and grasping man, realises the hefty price on Richard’s head and is eager to hand him over to Philip II, King of France. Leopold is also chomping at the bit to get at Richard after his public humiliation at Acre. He blames Richard for shaming him by casting down his standard. This embarrassment forced Leopold to abandon his Crusader vows and head home. He not only wants the money, but wants retribution for his perceived mistreatment.
His attempt to evade Leopold’s men and subsequent capture fifty miles from the Hungarian border is a gripping beginning to the book. The story starts with a quick pace that doesn’t slacken throughout most of the novel. While the majority of the story deals with Richard’s captivity, there are supporting characters who provide important backstories to Richard’s life and persona. We see Eleanor of Aquitaine’s attempts to free Richard, John’s attempts to wrest the kingdom from his imprisoned brother, Berengaria’s martial woes and Phillip’s political blunders. There are many peripheral characters, names and alliances to remember. At times, it can get cumbersome to follow but never enough to detract from the main story. One would think that a tale about captivity would grow stale but this is not the case. Richard’s interactions with Heinrich, Leopold and his caretaker, Hadmar of Kuenring, make the story incredibly interesting. Penman manages to really get behind each character’s motivations and mindset. Each character is given their fair share of time on the page and well fleshed out. Upon Richard’s eventual release, there is plenty of battling and bloodshed to make up for the lull during his confinement.
Penman plainly did her homework. Her storytelling is intricate, well researched and historically faithful. There were a few interesting alterations – the most memorable being Penman’s take on the relationship between Richard’s sister, Joanna and Raimond Count of Toulouse along with several additions, i.e., characters created just to further the storyline. Penman explains her changes satisfactorily at the end of the novel in the Author’s Note section stating that not everything we read online is gospel. Many historical fiction authors don’t bother doing an in depth examination of all the sources and just repeatedly regurgitate Wikipedia entries. If Hollywood took research seriously the way Penman has, we’d have fewer bad medieval movies and historically inaccurate television programmes.
A King’s Ransom is an intricate, clever, bloody and at times, moving story. Richard I is presented realistically yet still keeps his aura of legendary heroism. The tale reads like a movie without losing it’s way historically. It was a book I was sad to finally put down.
For more information about Sharon Kay Penman, please visit: www.sharonkaypenman.com
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