Book Review: Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

I’ll always remember the scene in the movie A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas Moore, being tried in Henry the Eighth’s Star Chamber, confronts the man who betrayed him. Seeing the man’s medallion which proclaims him Governor of Wales, he remarks “I can understand a man selling his soul to the devil for possession of the world, but for Wales? This evoked laughter even among Moore’s accusers, but the levity didn’t help Moore in the end.
In Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman evokes a Wales that one might, indeed, be willing to sell one’s soul for.
One man who would have sold his soul for Wales is Llewelyn Ab Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynydd. Having defeated his uncle in a long civil war, and come to power at the age of 21, Llewelyn is determined to unite Wales and to fend off the incursions of the Norman French and stop their encroachments into Wales.
Llewelyn fights his battles on two fronts, the battlefield itself and the diplomatic arena, and he is able and astute at both. To cement an alliance with King John of England, he marries John’s illegitimate daughter Joanna.
Penman’s book is not only a first rate historical novel, regaling the reader with fascinating historical personalities like Eleanor of Aquitaine, King John of England, Will Marshall, The Earls of Chester and Pembroke, Reginald De Broase, and Llewelyn, but it is also one of the most profound and fascinating love stories you will ever read. Joanna’s story is a Cinderella tale of an illegitimate child going from disgrace and poverty to being raised in her father’s court and married at age fourteen to a handsome and powerful prince. It is not a “happily ever after” story and Joanna must overcome difficult challenges, not the least of which, is a ten-year-old stepson who hates her. Gruffydd is Llewelyn’s son from a long-term relationship he had with his mistress Tengwistle who died in childbirth. Gruffydd wants to be Llewelyn’s heir and is mortified when Joanna gives birth to a son, Davydd. Joanna is also torn apart when Llewelyn has a falling out with her father, King John. She arranges a peace between them but it involves Llewelyn humbling himself before King John and giving him hostages, including Gruffydd. The outcome is tragic and casts a long shadow over Joanna and Llewelyn’s marriage.
Here Be Dragons is a masterpiece that works marvelously as both historical fiction and romance.

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