Click here to read reviewer Karen D. Haney's take on Devil's Brood.
Aptly named, Devil's Brood is a beautifully rendered portrait of the union of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II halfway into Henry’s reign. The bloom of early passion and the matched ambition of king and queen have succumbed to political realities, England and Rome reeling after the murder of Thomas Becket. Now it is Henry’s task to ameliorate the damage of the murder that will haunt his days, a few angry words causing a scandal that rocks all of Christendom. Wily Eleanor, while no longer basking in the shared rowdy coupling of their early years, remains a politically astute and embittered partner. Their four sons nearing maturity are eager to partake of their destiny, Henry painfully aware of the risks of manipulating heirs strong enough to hold the throne, rendered expendable by their father’s stubbornness and pride.
In a foreshadowing of the epic showdown between England and Rome with Henry VIII in the 16th century, Henry II balks at the Church’s claim as supreme giver of laws. It is necessary to appease pope and bishops to maintain harmony in the land, this skirmish but a symptom of the great battle brewing in the union of Henry and Eleanor: “This may have been the first war in which there were no winners, only losers.” A fertile marriage begun in great celebration ends in acrimony, furious Eleanor a match for Henry, deeply disappointed that he has failed to appreciate her political skills or share his throne with the woman who gambled all for a lusty young count.
How could this powerful, charismatic pair fail to produce sons of equal expectations? Unfortunately, Henry ignores his sons’ growing displeasure with their diminished roles, their grumbling over titles that can only be gained by the King’s death. Eleanor is perfectly willing to use the chasm between father and sons to exact her revenge, the love of king and queen turned increasingly bitter by the attrition of time and disappointments of a marriage. Henry fails to comprehend the consequences of underestimating his wife’s wrath, while she alienates his affections by disloyalty, the rift growing between what was once a promising union that placed the son of a count on the throne of England.
This is a big novel filled with political complexities and a myriad of characters, a tale of passion and power run aground, humanity once more undone by greed and hubris. But Penman’s expertise makes history manageable, informative and emotionally satisfying. Continually adding the necessary context to each layer of this fascinating period, Penman is vigilant with the small details, events and personalities, from the murder of Thomas Becket in 1172 to Henry’s death in 1189, an epic story of romance, betrayal and the ambitions of royal sons. This is the playground of the gods where history is writ, where men are kings and women dream of ruling as equals, where a thirsty Church extends tentacles beyond the realm of the spiritual to the temporal, where pride proves a poor partner in a lonely chamber in the dark of night.