Sunday, August 19, 2018

Book Review - "The Sunne in Splendour" by Sharon Kay Penman

This was one the best historical novels I’ve read so far and I’m really glad to have found this author. The novel’s only minor weakness is its length (936 pages) and I personally feel it could’ve been trimmed down a bit without losing any of its flavors. I was fully immersed except for a few places where the story veers off with insignificant side stories. I can certainly see why so many historical fiction aficionados on Goodreads raved about the novel.

I’m one of those historical fiction fans who are particularly drawn to the Wars of the Roses in English history. Previously I had read Conn Iggulden’s Stormbird and Bloodline, Paul Doherty’s Roseblood and Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. So going into Penman’s epic, I’m already quite familiar with the historical characters and the family trees. But none of those novels gives a detailed description of Richard III. Having watched last year BBC’s TV series The Hollow Crown – The War of the Roses, which is based on Shakespeare’s plays, I became hooked on Richard III. In fact I’ve had The Sunne in Splendour on my to-read list for almost two years and I am very pleased to have finally read it.

The novel is divided into four books.

Book One deals with the violent conflict between Marguerite of Anjou (Henry VI’s queen) and Richard of York who tries to make a claim for the throne due to Henry VI’s mental infirmity, how Richard’s son Edward eventually ascends the throne with the help of the Kingmaker Richard Neville of Warwick, marries the avaricious and conniving Elizabeth Woodville, and later, caught between his wife’s power grabbing demands and those of Warwick, goes into a vehement showdown with the latter.

Book Two introduces Anne, younger daughter of Warwick, who falls deeply in love with Richard, Edward’s loyal younger brother, but who is made a victim and pawn in the vortex of scheming politics involving Edward, Warwick, George of Clarence (Edward’s traitorous younger brother) and Marguerite of Anjou. First she is forbidden by Edward to marry Richard, then she is forced to marry Marguerite’s son Edouard of Lancaster, heir to Henry VI. The hostility between Edward and Warwick deepens as the latter uses George as a puppet to rival for the throne. When Edouard is killed in battle and Marguerite concedes defeat at last, Anne is finally reunited with Richard and marries him.

Book Three tells how Edward leads a debauched and dissolute life, while having to parry aggression from France and deal with growing discontent at home. He relies on Richard to fight his battles and in governance. George discovers a big secret about Edward’s marriage; Elizabeth learns about this, becomes paranoid and urges Edward to kill George, which he eventually does, to Richard’s utter dismay. (spoiler) It turns out that Edward had a plight-troth with a lady prior to his marriage to Elizabeth, thus making it illegal and his children bastards (spoiler). Edward then becomes very ill and dies, willing Richard to be the Protector of his heir.

Book Four is about Richard’s claim of protectorship, and later of kingship when he learns of Edward’s secret and when Anne convinces him of necessity for their son’s safety. Once crowned, he finds himself betrayed time and again by people he thinks he can trust. The most egregious betrayal surfaces when he is blamed for the disappearance of Edward’s two sons from custody in the Tower. Meanwhile he has to deflect ploys by Elizabeth and her allies who are plotting his murder. Then misfortune begins to pile on him. His son and heir dies; then Anne dies. He begins to regret having claimed the throne. At the same time, Henry Tudor, aided by France, emerges to rival with him for the throne. At the fateful Battle of Redmore Plain (Battle of Bosworth Field), Richard III is killed, dying a gruesome death and ending the Plantagenet line.

The strengths of the novel are aplenty: seamless weaving of fact and fiction; fluid and lucid writing style; tension-building deploy of twists and turns and heartfelt dialogue. In my view, the greatest strength lies in the author’s depiction through dialogue and action and thought processes of the intricate relationships between the various main actors, giving these characters true-to-life dimensions. Those relationships, shaded by torn loyalties, goodwill, compassion, betrayal, greed selfishness, envy and hatred, are striking because they speak right to our human heart. That being said, I do tend to agree with one reviewer’s comment that the characterization of Richard III may be over-romanticized.

As a fan of serious historical fiction, I am keen on learning history through reading historical novels and particularly appreciate that Penman tries to stay close to what are known as true historical facts and only exercises artistic license where there are gaps and blanks.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounding up to 5.

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