A thick medieval oater in which Richard Coeur de Lion meets Al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din, heads roll and the world shakes and shivers.
A little exposition in describing a book full of it: As fans of The Lion in Winter will remember, Henry II, King of England and Duke of Normandy, married the phenomenally smart Eleanor of Aquitaine and had five sons, three of whom rose up against him in rebellion. One of his heirs was Richard, who was no stranger to either intrigue or war. As Penman (Time and Chance, 2002, etc.) picks up her saga of the Angevins and Plantagenets in the present volume, Richard has dispatched with a pesky sibling and is now off in the Near East, embarking on the great task of freeing the Holy Land from the Muslims. Such big jobs need lots of support staff, and Penman fills her pages with characters, some colorful and some not, who do little bits of work to move the story along—but, sometimes, to make a long and complicated tale even more diffuse than it might have been. Mostly, though, Penman centers on the usual stuff of what, in the end, is an elevated gothic romance (“I think he had a nunnery in mind. He promised, though, to look after me, to make sure that I was always safe...” “Her veil slipped, as if by chance, and his pulse quickened, for she had skin as golden as her eyes and a full, ripe mouth made for a man’s kisses”)—though, thankfully, there’s plenty of crowd-pleasing hacking of swords and twanging of catapults, too. Indeed, if the great flaw of the book is talkiness and, yes, a surfeit of exposition (“Henri had no liking for Baldwin, who’d been one of the two knights who’d broken formation at Arsuf, forcing Richard to commit to a premature charge”), the descriptions of action are uniformly well handled.
In the hands of Robert Graves or Mary Renault, the material might have yielded a classic. As it is, a sturdy historical fiction.