Saturday Art: Influential Authors: Sharon Kay Penman
I first discovered Sharon Kay Penman in a box of books in the cellar of my sister’s condo:
Sharon Kay Penman (born August 13, 1945) is an American historical novelist, published in the UK as Sharon Penman. She is best known for the Welsh Princes trilogy and the Plantagenet series. In addition, she has written four medieval mysteries, the first of which, The Queen’s Man, was a finalist in 1996 for the Best First Mystery Edgar Award. Her novels and mysteries are set in England, France, and Wales, and are about English and Welsh royalty during the Middle Ages. The Sunne in Splendour, her first book, is a stand-alone novel about King Richard III of England and the Wars of the Roses. When the manuscript was stolen she started again and rewrote the book.
Her work is generally well received, with the more recent novels reaching the New York Times Bestseller List. Critics have praised her meticulous research of settings and events presented in her fiction, as well as the characterizations.
I have read all four of the referenced medieval mysteries and am about halfway through the fourth (Lionheart) of her now five Plantagenets series. I have also read the first (Here Be Dragons) of her Welsh Princes series.
The first of Penman’s books I read was the first of the Justin de Quincy medieval mysteries, The Queen’s Man, which as I said, I found in a box of books in my sister’s condo. I like mysteries. I like books set in historical and especially medieval times, so this was a no-brainer for me to pick up and read. The Goodreads.com synopsis for The Queen’s Man:
Epiphany, 1193. Eleanor of Aquitaine sits upon England’s throne. Her beloved son Richard Lionheart is missing, presumed dead – and the court whispers that her younger son, John, is plotting to seize the crown. Meanwhile, on the snowy highroad from Winchester, a destitute young man falls heir to a blood stained letter, pressed into his hand by a dying man. The missive becomes Justin de Quincy’s passport into the queen’s confidence – and into the heart of danger, as he pursues a cunning murderer and jousts with secret traitors in Eleanor’s court of intrigue and mystery
The book goes on to tell how Justin de Quincy solves this mystery and becomes an agent for Queen Eleanor. The other books continue the tales of his adventures and further mysteries he must solve while navigating a life where he must sometimes thwart the schemes of Prince John but do so in a way that will allow him to live should/when John ascend to the throne.
Again from her wiki:
Penman’s approach to her novels is to present meticulously researched  medieval life and history as everyday life, and to present the nobility as fallible. Set against a backdrop of political tension, power struggles, war, and hardship, the main characters confront personal drama such as conflict in love, conflict between family members, conflict with God, and conflict in friendship, as well as conflicted loyalties between family, self, king and country. A Library Journal review praises Penman’s attention to detail in which she “combines an in-depth knowledge of medieval Europe with vivid storytelling, re-creating the complex events and emotional drama of the 12th – 15th centuries.”
Although set in the 12th and 13th centuries, Penman sets the characters and narrative in her novels in medieval sites that still exist and can be visited, including castles, churches and archeological areas. Areas such as Aber Falls and Dolwyddelan Castle have important scenes in Penman’s novels. In Devil’s Brood, Penman sets the characters in scenes in a variety of medieval royal residences, castles and abbeys, in England and present day France, many of which still exist such as the Château de Chinon, Fontevrault Abbey, and Chateau de Loches.
It is partly the attention to details and the research that makes me enjoy her writing so much but it is also her ability to tell a tale. At some point in her books, either as a foreword or an author’s note, she tries to document where she deviates from known history and facts as well as areas where what she presents is based on supposition based on the few known facts available. The good authors who do this level of research can make learning history quite a bit of fun.
It is nice to know there are so many well-written historical novels available for my reading pleasure in times to come.
Picture from Heather Kennedy licensed under Creative Commons