Book Review: Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman

Every time I read one of Sharon Kay Penman’s novels I’m awed by her writing. I’d give my soul if I could write historical fiction the way she does.
Falls the Shadow is the second book of her Welsh Princes Trilogy and continues the story where Here Be Dragons leaves off. Llewellyn Ap Iorwerth dies and leaves his domain to Davydd, his son by Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of England’s King John. Davydd’s reign is relatively short and the struggle for dominance of Gwynnyd falls to the sons of Llewellyn’s elder, but illegitimate son, Gruffydd. Llewellyn favored his grandson and namesake Llelo, and has managed to impart to him both his military aptitude and his understanding of the need for Wales to be united against the constantly encroaching English.
The book, however soon diverges to tell the story of Simon de Montfort and his family. King Henry III’s sister, Nell, widowed at a young age, forsakes her vow of chastity to marry de Montfort, much against her brother’s wishes. The relationship between the monarch and his brother-in-law is intermittently stormy and at one point he is exiled from England.
Henry III proves a devastatingly inept monarch, both militarily and politically, and, although Simon de Montfort has sworn fealty to him, he eventually becomes the leader of a rebellion by the English barons. They attempt to impose a set of provisions on Henry which were a logical extension of the Magna Carta. The King, however, is convinced that he answers only to God and will brook no interference.
Penman astutely illustrates how a mischance or a happenstance can dramatically alter the course of history. What if Simon de Montfort’s eldest son, Harry, had not been so trusting? What if his second son Bran had been more trustworthy and competent? The course of English history might have been entirely different.
Penman paints a vivid picture of England and Wales in the 13th century. She relates the tragic plight of the Jews of that era who were the lowest and most vulnerable residents in the realm. One of the most remarkable characters in her story is Thomas fitz Thomas, the mayor of London, a staunch supporter of Simon de Montfort, who tries to protect the Jews of his city.
Prior to reading this book I knew absolutely nothing about Simon de Montfort and his noble struggle. One of the reasons I love reading Sharon Kay Penman’s books is that she fills in glaring gaps in my knowledge of English history. At the same time, she is a masterful story teller.

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