In her fifth ambitious historical novel (The Reckoning, 1991, etc.) -- and the first of a trilogy -- Penman once again tells a tale of kings and queens, singular destinies and double-crosses, at an unhurried pace. Happily, though, the author continues to base her narrative on the firm ground of fact -- or at least on what is available after scholars have parted the medieval clouds of chroniclers' bias. Here begins the story of England's terrible 18 years from 1135-1153, during which a dead king's daughter, Maude, and her cousin Stephen fight for the crown. Of the 23 children sired by Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, only two were born in wedlock: William, whose drowning opens the novel, and Maude, who's declared the legitimate heir. Upon the king's death, however, Stephen, also a grandchild of William I, snatches the crown. Meanwhile, Maude, who was shipped off at the age of nine to marry a German emperor and who was later forced to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, is a woman with grievances. With her ""right hand"" -- Robert, Earl of Gloucester -- Maude begins her painful, doomed route to the crown. Castle by castle, there are defeats and brief triumphs on both sides; alliances crumble and mend; innocents are slaughtered and countrysides destroyed; and, as regularly as ticking clocks, messengers leave frothing horses to report (usually) disaster. England rejects Maude (because she's a woman, she thinks), but she fights for the kingship of her son in France, who as Henry II will finish what Maude began -- after marriage to powerful, beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine. Penman inventively animates a large cast; and, given the hints of a drama featuring Henry and Eleanor in the works, a solidly beefy introduction to the first skirmishes of the Plantagenets.