Lionheart, by Sharon Penman

Review published on March 22, 2013. Reviewed by Sara Garland

This is a historical novel about the mesmerising Richard I and the Third Crusade. It is an extremely well researched book which is both fascinating and exciting. Its size makes it a significant read, with an extensive amount of characters; the cast of which is listed at the front of the book. However the characters are so distinguishable and distinctive that it is quite easy to keep abreast of them.

Crowned king in 1189, Richard I almost immediately had to undertake the quest to regain the Holy Land in Jerusalem; a bloody war between the Christians and Muslims, known as Saracens at that time. His insistence at leading fights, and working alongside his men in all aspects of soldiering earned him the title and epithet of Lionheart. His actions are probably reflective of some degree of psychopathy, given his unwavering courage and displays of dominance, but with added big dashes of luck and a natural political and military prowess, it made him a worthy and feared enemy.

This is a powerful, yet enthralling depiction, which is woven around historical events. It inspires you to look further into the wider history of this colourful and complex individual. Although prone to fiery outbursts of temper, this was also moderated by a spirit of reflection and compassion. Penman portrays Richard with an air of fairness and righteousness in his actions, befitting of somebody that takes their regal and Christian vows very seriously.

The quest is made complicated furthernot only by the capture of his sister but also the fragile alliance between King Richard and King Philip of France. Neither particularly likes or trusts each other and they, with increasing frequency have opposing approaches to war. It is evident they are working towards differing agendas.

The language used in the book is a delight; extremely eloquent and powerfully descriptive. It cleverly captures the political rivalry amongst countries, the manner in which medieval marriages were regularly arranged around alliances – also the interface and sometimes interference of religious figures in the church, with the power and influence this wielded. The female characters whilst constrained by their expected conduct at the time remained strong and formative. Penman does an excellent job of bringing King Richard to life, not only through battle, but through his intelligence.

Whilst an intense strategist with keen attention to detail, he also valued the lives of his soldiers and understood how to motivate them. Conversely it would seem he didn’t quite understand women, but did appear to respect them. The relationship depicted between Berengaria, whom he weds, offers a more gentle and private side of an imposing king.

The battles depicted, both on a small and large scale were easy to picture and imagine. They conveyed the emotions and uncertainty of war as well as the rationale for the tactics deployed. The skills and wherewithal of the Saracens, the attempts at diplomacy and the shared respect between the adversaries, Richard and Saladin make it a solid well rounded read, which I would have been most happy to have continued reading, such was the fluidity and realistic captivation of this engrossing historical storyline.

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