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Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
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Here Be Dragons (1985)

by Sharon Kay Penman

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1,762444,000 (4.34)156
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Where I got the book: purchased used on Amazon.

This is the first book I’ve read by Sharon Kay Penman, and it was a product of the Goodreads Effect—I’ve heard so many good things about Penman on Goodreads that I realized I was going to have to get acquainted with her work. This, I believe, was the second book she wrote, after The Sunne in Splendor, and the first book in her Welsh Trilogy. It covers the years from 1183 to 1234 and tells the story of Llewelyn, a Welsh prince determined to keep Wales Welsh by keeping the English (well, Norman French really) King John out of his country, and his wife Joanna, who was John’s illegitimate daughter.

Given its subject matter, it won’t surprise you to learn that the movement of the novel is chronological rather than thematic; it’s basically a straight telling of what happened during the period, primarily from the point of view of either Llewelyn or Joanna (but see below). If you’re the kind of reader who reads historical fiction to learn history, you will learn a great deal about the period, about Wales and about the personalities involved, and since I’m not a historian I can’t tell you whether it’s accurate or not.

Penman writes well, puts words into the characters’ mouths that don’t generally sound either too modern or too deliberately olde-worlde, and covers, as far as I can see, a great deal of the known history of the time. I can’t fault her on any of those points.

And yet…I wasn’t overly impressed. I read this book a few pages at a time over a very long period, which admittedly isn’t probably the best way to do it, but at no point did the story grab me enough that I wanted to bring this book with me wherever I went. I even tried starting it over after the first 50 pages or so, because I’d let a long time lapse, and then after that I kept doggedly perservering, determined to give Penman a fair try.

I should admit, though, that Welsh settings have never appealed to me much, and I had trouble dealing with so many names, character or place, with L or G or W in them. I kept trying to pronounce the names in my head, and since I haven’t spent much time in Wales this was a frustrating bit of OCD that hounded me constantly as I read. But maybe that’s just me.

I spent much of the 700 pages of this book wondering why I simply couldn’t work up any feeling for any of the characters, and it was only toward the end of the book that the answer began to dawn on me. I had a problem with the narrative voice. Penman writes in the third person omniscient point of view which, admittedly, is probably the best choice for a novel involving a great many characters and a large chunk of history—she is able to show us the inside of the heads of any character she wishes at any point in time. I have nothing against the omniscient POV when it’s done well, but I don’t think that Penman had really mastered it in this book. We are very often deep in Llewelyn or Joanna’s head, and I found it disconcerting to suddenly hop into the head of a minor character, as quite frequently happened. It’s like holding a telescopic device when someone else is playing around with the zoom, so that one second you’re looking at things from miles away, the next second you’re right up close, and then WHAM, back to miles away again. To make things worse, every so often she resorted to historian mode to get over long periods of time in which not much happened, or at least not much happened that she intended to show in the book. So suddenly we weren’t in any character’s head—we were listening to a disembodied storyteller.

And that, I figured, is why I couldn’t get to like any of the characters—the narrative technique made them all seem a bit like a cast of marionettes, not acting under their own free will but at the mercy of the narrated Historical Imperative. And that’s a shame because there was a lot of family drama that also, because of who that family happened to be, was historically important. The abiding impression of what I did like turns out to be King John, who doesn’t appear often enough for my liking but casts an awfully long shadow over Joanna and Llewelyn’s lives. I grew up with an impression of King John taken from the Robin Hood stories, and am glad to have received a more nuanced picture of this much-maligned monarch.

All this makes it very hard to rate this book, but I’m going for three stars because of the sheer struggle I had to stay engaged with the story. Which doesn’t mean I’m giving up on Penman—I have another of her books somewhere in the TBR pile, and I’ll admit that if I want to learn something about a period via historical fiction, she seems like a good author to go to. ( )
1 vote JaneSteen | Aug 26, 2014 |
Tale of Welch prince Llewellen, and Joanna, the daughter of England's King John. Good transition from Lionhearted, and moves English historical timeline forward. First of the Welch trilogy, but since its such a big book I'll wait a while before moving on to the next book. I love this author! ( )
  Pmaurer | Oct 29, 2013 |
This book probably deserves more than 5 stars just for the depth of research and mind-boggling amount of information that is contained within its pages. Penman clearly knows her stuff! That said, there were times where information was just sort of dumped in short paragraphs to cover jumps in time that read a bit heavy. Although admittedly I can't imagine any way anyone could have gotten around that when trying to cover such a long span of time and going into such detail. So it probably couldn't be helped. Be prepared for a huge cast of characters in this book that cover generations and that then share names and titles. It can get confusing.

I have to say this book damn near broke my heart at times. I suppose thats a sign of a good book though, right? I literally lost sleep over certain parts (and maybe missed some work as well), most notably during the last 100 pages. I love historical fiction, but I often read as a form of escapism so don't typically like things too heavy. And perhaps that has made me soft and not as able to appreciate a realistic relationship between two people because I felt that Llewelyn and Joanna fought too much. I felt that Penman wrote about their quarrels so much more frequently than the good times that I couldn't feel the love between them as much. Or maybe I'm just not very good as appreciating a more subtle romance and prefer to have so much romance shoved down my throat that I practically choke on it :) Whatever the case may be, it wasn't until the very very end that I truly appreciated their love for each other.

I knew beforehand about the "scandal" that occurs in the last 100 pages of the book and was worried about how Penman would handle that because I thought the character she had created and the actions of the actual person wouldn't feel logical, but I thought she pulled it off really well. Penman created believable characters that coincide with the accounts that we have of them. John was a really interesting character to read about given that my main source of information on him came from Robin Hood. So it was interesting to see this different, and probably more realistic, depiction of him.

I loved learning about Wales. I know so little, feel like it is so overlooked, but so interesting. And now I just want to know more!

This book is very good, but exhaustive. I just finished reading it and feel like I need to take a break before I pick up my next book! ( )
  emmytuck | Sep 27, 2013 |
I loved this book;one of the reasons I enjoy reading historical fiction is because of the opportunity to sink into a time period and know that the events and characters are drawn from what really occurred. Penman does this exceeding well and I could not put this book down until I had read it to the very last page. The primary characters of Joanna and Llewelyn have so much depth - I could not help but fall in love with their relationship and root for a happy ending. You can certainly tell that Penman did her research - which must of been slow-going and time consuming - to bring this story to life. Her notes at the end of the book were just as fascinating as the story itself. This will be a book that I will definitely be reading again. ( )
  MichelleCH | Apr 5, 2013 |
Llewelyn the Great and the Welsh, mostly through the eyes of Joanna, daughter of King John, wife of Llewelyn. Very complex, interesting and well-written. I need a much firmer grounding in the events of the 13th century, though. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Prologue: Theirs was a land of awesome grandeur, a land of mountains and moorlands and cherished myths.
Book One: Chapter 1: Shropshire, England, July 1183: He was ten years old and an alien in an unfriendly land, made an unwilling exile by his mother's marriage to a Marcher border lord.
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Book description
Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England’s ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king’s beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John’s attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales---and Llewelyn---Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.

The turbulent clashes of two disparate worlds and the destinies of the individuals caught between them spring to life in this magnificent novel of power and passion, loyalty and lies. The book that began the trilogy that includes Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, Here Be Dragons brings thirteenth-century England, France, and Wales to tangled, tempestuous life.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345382846, Paperback)

"A masterful picture of Wales in the 13th century...vivdly pictured as grandly beautiful, its people volatile, stubborn and mystic."
THE SAN DIEGO UNION
Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Then Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce with England by marrying the English king's beloved, illegitimate daughter, Joanna. Reluctant to wed her father's bitter enemy, Joanna slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband who dreams of uniting Wales. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales--and Llewelyn--Joanna must decide to which of these powerful men she owes her loyalty and love.
A sweeping novel of power and passion, loyalty and lives, this is the book that began the trilogy that includes FALLS THE SHADOW and THE RECKONING.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:20 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A thirteenth-century Welsh prince called Llewelyn the Great tries to wrest his country from England. Standing in his way is King John who marries his daughter to Llewelyn in hopes of taming the rebellious prince.

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Sharon Kay Penman is a LibraryThing Author, an author who lists their personal library on LibraryThing.

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Sharon Kay Penman chatted with LibraryThing members from Aug 10, 2009 to Aug 21, 2009. Read the chat.

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