Saturday, May 5, 2012

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman


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The book's description from the author's website:

A sweeping novel of thirteenth-century England, Falls the Shadow is the story of a weak and willful king and a brilliant but uncompromising baron: once they had been friends, yoked by ties of marriage and by mutual if irksome need; ultimately they became implacable enemies enmeshed in a brutal war from which only one would emerge alive.  
Falls the Shadow is the story of Henry III, cursed with the Plantagenet temper but lacking the Plantagenet will: faithful son of the Church, faithless liege lord; father of England's most famous warrior-king, wretched ruler of a rebellious realm. But for an accident of birth, he might have been a visionary architect, content in the role of paterfamilias. Instead, he inherited a crown -- and with it, all the problems left unresolved by the untimely death of his father, King John. Unable either to rule or to subdue, he would retreat into querulous impotence. And Falls the Shadow, finally, is the story of Simon de Montfort, youngest son of an influential French family, entitled to inherit neither land nor titles -- who talked his way into an earldom and marriage with the King's sister. Theirs would be a singular union: founded on a lie, defended by intense carnality, yet preserved by a fidelity unimaginable in an age of shifting allegiances based on self-interest alone.
Uncommonly able and dangerously outspoken, a fierce battle commander and a ruthless ally willing to risk all in defense of honor, Simon de Montfort embodied the chivalric code, stirring passions -- for good and for ill -- in all he brushed. It was inevitable that he would clash with Henry

 Oh what a book! And what a writer! I can count on the fingers of my one hand the contemporary authors of historical fiction whose skills parallel those of Sharon Kay Penman (and no, Philippa Gregory is not on that list). You read Penman's books and you can hope that maybe not all is yet lost in this 'limping' literary world of ours. We're lucky to have Sharon (and very few others) still write for us.

I'm sure you've heard it said (written) about good or great historical fiction authors (including Penman, no doubt) that they bring history to your doorstep. Well, let me tell you what Sharon does: she takes you and brings you to history's doorstep. What I mean by that is when you read Falls the Shadow, you read history in its purest, most entrancing form. The author doesn't modernize it, make it fluffy and simplistic enough to be easily processed and assimilated by our contemporary minds. As soon as you open this book (just as any other by SKP) and start reading, you will be whisked away, dropped off at 'the doorsteps' and will be given an enormous opportunity to walk through the history's wide open door.

And it's not only thanks to the author's impeccable research but also because of her great writing. Penman's gift to make all the characters be alive again just for us, readers is truly something to be treasured. And no, she doesn't make those people, who once lived and made history, just like us. No, she writes them just as they may have been during the reign of Henry III. They're their own persons and when you read about Simon de Montfort, about Nell, Countess of Pembroke, about King Henry III, his wife and about every other character thrown into this creature called History, you'll know there's no need to have them emulate our feeling, behaviors and personalities. I rather had a desire to be like them instead.

I've seen it written that Falls the Shadow wasn't up to a readers standards because they disliked Simon or Nell, or any other character because of the things they did. The problem with this is that Falls the Shadow might be fiction but the people in it, just like things they'd done were very much real. Ms. Penman couldn't have very well made Simon different from what he was. This book wouldn't then be claimed to be very well grounded in fact, would it?

Two more words of advice. Falls The Shadow is part two of The Welsh Trilogy (Here Be Dragons coming before and The Reckoning after). It's better to read them in order. Besides, Here be Dragons, which I reviewed previously, is just as fantastic. Another caution, make sure you have a box of tissues handy for the last 100 pages, because you will cry. I thought my heart was being ripped open, I swear.