A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman (Historical Fiction Review)

King Richard I “the Lionhearted” is rarely the main character in the story of his capture during his return from the Third Crusade, ransom and fight to maintain his Anglo-French empire during his last years. In the Robin Hood tales, Richard is significant because of his absence. While he languished in the Holy Roman Emperor’s custody, his brother John and King Philippe II of France schemed to divide up his domains, allowing the legendary Robin to distinguish himself through his loyalty to the King. In any historical fiction set in England during Richard’s reign, the King is an absentee monarch because he only spent six months on England soil during his reign. In A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart, bestselling historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman places Richard at the centre of events, imagining how his imprisonment and ransom changed him as a monarch and a man, affecting his family, household and the history of medieval Europe.

In her author’s note, Penman describes Lionheart, her novel of the Third Crusade, as Richard’s Iliad while A King’s Ransom is Richard’s Odyssey, consumed by his struggle to return home. The novel opens with Richard on the run across Europe and the Mediterranean, hunted by Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich and his vassals in Germany and Austria in addition to Philippe and his allies. All of these rulers emerge as distinct villains. There is Heinrich, a cold and merciless ruler determined to extract the greatest profit from Richard’s capture, Philippe, who nurses a personal grudge against the English King and opportunistic and ineffectual Prince John. The novel maintains a dramatic pace as Richard is forced to contend with all these powerful figures who have few common goals beyond a desire to keep him from his lands and wealth by any means necessary.

Richard’s larger than life historical reputation as  a crusading King often means that he appears in fiction as one dimensional figure. Penman’s Richard is a multifaceted person with a sarcastic sense of humour, a keen sense of honour and the ability to inspire loyalty in followers of all backgrounds. In A King’s Ransom, his imprisonment has a profound impact on his character, ensuring that he returns from crusade as a very different man and King than when he left.

In his travels across Europe, Richard encounters a diverse array of rulers and their interconnected families. Penman does an excellent job of making all these princes, princesses, duke and duchesses, counts and countesses distinct individuals, even in the scenes at the Holy Roman Emperor’s court, which feature numerous German Princes named variations of Heinrich. (There is a cast of characters at the front of the book). As in Penman’s previous novels, little known historical figures emerge as compelling personalities. The portrayal of the friendship between Richard’s sister, Joanna and his neglected queen consort, Berengeria, is particularly compelling. Most of the medieval women who inspire historical novels are larger than life figures such as Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Penman’s Berengeria is a pious, conventional medieval woman but she emerges  in both A King’s Ransom and Lionheart as a complex personality with “steel in her spine.”

I have enjoyed Penman’s novels since reading The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III when I was seventeen. Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning is some of the best historical fiction ever written. Perhaps because Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine have already been the subject of countless novels and films, I found the early volumes of Penman’s Plantagenet series to be less compelling. With Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, Penman is once again writing some the best historical fiction published today. A King’s Ransom is the best historical novel I have read all year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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