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‘Only the Angevins would see a rebellion as an opportunity for brotherly bonding’ April 12, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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A new Penman novel is always cause for celebration.

The Historical Novels Review.


Well, yes. When I saw her latest, Devil’s Brood, I had to buy it in hardback. There aren’t many novels for which I’d make such a sacrifice! Luckily, my money wasn’t wasted.

Devil’s Brood is the conclusion to her trilogy about the Angevins and Poitevins (the first was about the civil war between Maude and Stephen, the second could’ve been subtitled Henry and Eleanor: The Early Years). This book covers the last decades of Henry II’s rule and the beginnings of that of his son, Richard I. Otherwise known as ‘And here is where it all fell apart’. Penman is a master at showing how families, united, can never be defeated, but when there’s conflict in the family, the betrayals are deeper, the hatreds more vicious, the conflict much more poignant and deadly.

She’s also excellently even-handed. All her characters act on deeply-held beliefs and a sense of the justice of their actions. For Penman, all problems can be traced back to deep-seated tensions, resentments and flaws within families.

For her Devil’s brood of Angevin children, these problems lie in their parents’ marriage – a marriage of two fierce, passionate, frighteningly intelligent people who just can’t manage to be on the same page. At one point, Eleanor mournfully points out that she married Henry (the man) and he married Eleanor for her lands. Their marriage is a battleground, and the battle ranges across their combined empires, drawing in their children, with disastrous consequences.

That’s not to say that Penman reduces history to soap opera. Her works are always meticulously researched.

That being said, her Angevins do tend to be larger than life. Where she excels is in marginal or traditionally maligned figures (Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, Llewelyn Fawr, King John himself, Richard III). In this trilogy, the role is filled by illegitimate children. (Penman gives Henry I, grandfather of Henry II, an extra illegitimate son, Ranulf. Since Henry apparently had 20 or so illegitimate children, Penman figured one more couldn’t hurt.) The half-Welsh Ranulf, who cares deeply for his nephew Henry II, forms the emotional heart of the story.

No historical fiction writer perfectly captures the voice and character of medieval people. Their most objectionable characteristics (passivity and lack of education for women, misogyny and violence for men) must be toned down to make them palatable to modern readers. Penman’s books are no exception. But in spite of this, her books have an authenticity and veracity. So far she’s rehabilitated Richard III (in The Sunne In Splendour), caused me to fall in love with Henry, Eleanor, Llewelyn (Fawr and ap Gruffydd) and Joanna (in her Angevin/Poitevin trilogy and her Welsh trilogy), made me a passionate partisan of Simon de Montfort (in Falls the Shadow, the second of the Welsh trilogy) and respect Maude (in the first Angevin book, When Christ and His Saints Slept). She’s even successfully transformed King John into a tragic figure (in the first book of the Welsh trilogy, Here Be Dragons. I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

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