A legendary medieval warrior king fights, jousts, plots, wallows in kinky sex and has his heart broken in this entertaining book.
Debut author Manson insists that he’s edited and translated (from the Latin) these long-lost 12th-century diaries of Richard, King of England, Duke of Normandy, as dictated to Richard’s amanuensis, the monk Armande. If true, they will greatly revise humanity’s understanding of medieval intellectual history: Richard, for example, talks about being “paranoid”; divines the germ theory of disease—ascribing “influenza” to a “bug”—without benefit of microscopes; and uses the phrase “some ten minutes later” centuries before clocks with minute hands had been invented. Historians will also thank the good monk for having improbably recorded Richard’s many bedroom conquests in such lascivious detail (“She took her hand away, brought it to her mouth and licked all the way round the forefinger and middle finger before resuming the rubbing”). That said, these episodic diaries mainly tell a well-attested, engaging story of family dysfunction on an epic scale. Richard’s tyrannical father, Henry II, faces multiple revolts from his redoubtable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and three headstrong sons, resulting in a decadeslong maelstrom of Oedipal tensions and sibling rivalry, acted out on the battlefield. Later, the story follows Richard’s crusade to the Holy Land, where the Saracens are a minor nuisance compared to his ally, King Phillip of France—the very embodiment of arrogance, treachery and cowardice. Along the way, Richard turns from a hard-bitten rake to a sappy swain over Princess Berengaria of Navarre, the last virgin in Christendom; their blissful marriage is replete with pagan couplings before it’s darkened by ghastly villainy. Manson’s depiction of this melodrama expertly conveys the mix of haughty manners, gross squalor, brute force and subtle scheming that modern readers love about the Middle Ages. Apart from the dialogue and the sex, the period details, particularly of warfare and court life, are rich and well-observed. Richard’s voice may sometimes sound anachronistic, but he relates his saga in energetic prose in a book with brisk pacing, vivid characters and nuanced psychology.
A somewhat soapy but vigorous and engrossing view of a historical hero.