Sharon Kay Penman transcends beloved-author status: among lovers of historical fiction, she is cherished. Her latest offering sets out to capture the larger-than-life Richard I—crusader, king of England and member of the colorful Angevin family—and she does not disappoint.
The stage for Richard’s story is the Third Crusade, a quest to retake Jerusalem from the hands of the sultan of Egypt, Salah al-Din, called Saladin by the Westerners. As Richard embarks on this all-consuming quest in concert with the rest of Christendom, he rescues his sister, Joanna, from a precarious political position after the death of her husband and marries Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navarre. And so the two women join Richard in the Holy Land, bearing witness as the plot clambers over the highs and lows of history—scandalous political intrigue, battles won and lost and the thrills and heartaches of maintaining a life in the midst of war.
Richard’s profile in history is that of a bold, boisterous warrior-king, a character that seems almost too exaggerated to be real. Penman reaches beyond the hero, not to imbue him with flaws, but to find the man behind the legend. Penman’s Richard I is hot-blooded with incredible military prowess, but capable of being humbled and moved. His commitment to act with honor is not outsized, but real.
Richard’s spotlight, however, is very nearly stolen by his tough-minded sister and quiet, yet strong new wife, two women who become compelling characters in their own right in Penman’s hands.
Penman is often commended for writing about the medieval world without passing judgment on its characters and the value system that makes them so different from modern readers, and she does that again in Lionheart. She also succeeds at depicting the odd nature of holy war. Both Richard and Saladin, a shrewd commander famous for both might and mercy, believe they are serving God with each clash of swords, and yet each respects the other’s military skill and strategy.
The author is also known for her meticulous research; it’s as if she sees herself more as a historiographer than a novelist. Lionheart is no departure from this reputation, and the richly imagined dialogue and story are intercut with snippets from primary sources. The truth of the events makes the novel all the more fascinating and worthy of several reads.