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Set in the 13th Century, Here Be Dragons is the story of King John and his England. A paradoxical man, he was charming, generous, clever -- and he was unstable and brutal. He was capable of great kindnesses, but he butchered child hostages. He was the youngest son and favorite of Henry Plantagenet, but he would betray his father in order to seize the throne of England. For centuries, history recorded him as a bad king, upon whom the Magna Carta was forced. Yet history also tells us he was intent on bringing a measure of justice to his realm in the face of his greedy barons' refusal to accept the law.

But Here Be Dragons is also the story of Llewelyn the Great of Wales. At 14, he began a civil war; by 21, he held all North Wales. He was John's vassal -- and most bitter enemy. His dream of a free and united Wales, unencumbered by English laws or lords, was to spur a lifelong crusade that left little time for peace or pleasure.

And, at its heart, Here Be Dragons is the story of Joanna: daughter to one, wife to the other. Bastard-born, hidden from her father until her embittered mother's death, then brought, a bewildered five-year-old, to John's court. He would cherish her, cosset her, and yet use her as a political pawn, marrying her off at fifteen to a wild Welsh prince She was terrified, but he was the father she adored and obeyed. Wife to Llewelyn, whom she came to love, daughter to John, whom she worshipped, Joanna was trapped in the crossfire of their implacable enmity.

After reading another of Penman's books - Time and Chance - I knew that I wanted to know more about the Welsh people. Prior to reading T&C, my knowledge of the Welsh was vague at best. Through members of the historical fiction forum I am a member of, I discovered Penman had written a Welsh trilogy. So I managed to buy the three books over the last 7 months and have finally gotten around to reading them.

Overall the book was a good read. Penman does well in her presentation, though I know of at least one other author who might say she portrayed Joanna in too good a light. I cannot argue the point as I'm not well versed in that era of English history, but I do not feel that misinterpreted portrayal takes away from the story. The core of the story is Joanna's struggle between loyalty to her father - who gave her a loving home when she lost her mother at five - and loyalty to her husband.

The only thing negative I can say about the book is something probably most would argue about. I was hoping for a story more focused on Wales. I realise that the history of Wales is inescapably tied to England, I feel that Penman is more than capable of pulling off a more Welsh-centric story than she has. I know she is capable of it because there are chunks of Time and Chance where one of her characters lives in Wales and though related to the monarch, knows little of what is going on outside of Wales.

Still, I would recommend this book to any Penman fan.


  1. Marg said...
    I would happily read anything that Penman wrote! Love the way she draws you into the lives of her characters.
    Bix said...
    These books are certainly going on my 'to read list'

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