Penman’s Lionheart is only the first of two volumes, to be followed by The King’s Ransom. Richard I fails to complete the goal of the Third Crusade and attack Jerusalem, his army exhausted by the rigors of the enterprise and disheartened by a lack of progress.
This vast, humbling continent is not to be easily dominated by Christian troops, no matter how brilliant the strategy or strong the English thirst for blood and treasure. Much is revealed about the king and the man on this journey, the bright-haired son of the brutal Henry II who dies in 1189, leaving Richard to take the reins of England. Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s son is ready for his role on the world stage, filled with the glory of God and the urgency of his mission to the Holy Land to avenge the wrongs of the past.
His brothers under truce and opposing factions neutralized, Richard depends on Eleanor to keep the peace while he ventures forth, reluctantly joined by Philippe Capet of France, who systematically undermines Richard, seducing his jealous brothers to gain the upper hand, Philippe ever in competition. Nor is Richard’s quest free of Philippe’s betrayals and treacheries. Political sabotage is apparent at every phase of the journey, from encounters at sea to rebellions on land. Secret promises and alliances bedevil Richard at every turn, and Philippe stands at the center of every controversy, slander or misdirection. French and English soldiers march in common cause but are at cross-purposes, an embarrassment as Christians fight each other in lieu of their desert enemies.
Richard’s betrothal and marriage to Berengaria of Spain is a coup that infuriates the French king, showing yet another aspect of the soldier-king, taking her on crusade, along with his sister, Joanna, the recently-widowed Queen of Sicily. Still, at heart Richard is a battle-hardened soldier and diplomat, observing in Saladin a ruler of similar temperament, which does little to endear Richard to his troops. Richard’s great endeavor is not a success, nor is Penman’s attempt to humanize a military ruler with few soft edges save his marriage to Berengaria, whom he subsequently ignores as his political problems escalate.
The Third Crusade ill-favored, England seethes with rebellion as Richard’s brothers grow restive and ambitious without their brother’s presence. Penman reconstructs the enormous task of launching a crusade: the weapons, war machines, supplies and entourage wending its way toward the Holy Land. Breathing life into the dusty pages of history with a parade of soldiers, servants, hawkers, mercenaries, spies, thieves and fools in search of adventure in foreign lands, Penman drowns under the weight of the venture, unable to extricate her protagonist by novel’s end. With Richard hopelessly committed to crusade, his country lies in tatters thanks to the “holy” arrogance that drives his folly.
Most disappointing is the paucity of interactions between Richard and Saladin. Penman is bogged down in the machinations of the French king, the losses of the crusade and the very real threat to peace in England while Richard clings to the illusion of success in the Holy Land. Absolutely exhausting. If Penman musters the courage to complete this saga, I doubt I will have the energy to follow Richard through the next phase of his reign.