Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman

Note to all: I’ve gone past a milestone!  About eight months ago (August of 2012), I started this book blog.  My first posts were lists of my top-10 favorite books of all time and the bottom of the bucket: the worst books I’d ever written down notes about after reading.  Since then, I’ve been working through my backlog of book reviews, posting reviews in the order I read the books.  I’ve finally come to the books I read in August of 2012, and so I’ve reached one of the books I mentioned in that worst-books-of-all-time posts.  I’m going to indulge my loathing of this book a little more, and re-post this review now that it comes appropriately in chronological order.

The book:

I have been on a historical-fiction kick lately.  After reading about Scotland in the 11th Century (see King Hereafter), Wales in the 12th Century seemed like a perfect sequel.  Plus, Sharon Penman is known for a series recreating the Napoleonic Wars … PLUS DRAGONS!  How awesome is that?  Who wouldn’t want to go fighting the French ON A FUCKING DRAGON?  However, Here Be Dragons is not said series, and has only symbolic dragons, and I was sorely disappointed.  Reading Sharon Penman after reading Dorothy Dunnett is like reading Christopher Paolini after J.R.R. Tolkein; it’s like trading an ocean for a sandbox.

The plot is ploddingly simple, but Penman tries to shake it up a bit by jumping from year to year, from narrator to narrator.  All of the narrators sound the same, however: naïve and petty, no matter if it’s the King of England or a 6-year-old girl.  Because each chapter takes place in a different year, we just have to assume each person gets older as the numbers turn, without seeing any evidence of character development in the writing.

And the writing!  Ye gods, the writing.  Hear me, O Aspiring Historical Fiction Author: Just because this is Ye Olden Times does not mean you should throw in “mahap”s and “wroth”s whenever you feel like it.  (They were speaking Middle English, Middle Welsh, and Old Norman, anyways, so your fancy words really are just stupidly extraneous.) Sentences such as the following will earn you a shunning: “I know not with whom my mother’ll be more wroth, me or my Uncle Gruffydd…” (p. 28).  Seriously, seriously, that sentence deserves a sharp kick in the nuts.  Here’s another passage that got my goat; in the following, one of the main characters is thinking of Eleanor of Aquitaine: “She knew she should only feel disapproval toward a wayward wife, a rebel Queen, but she was aware, instead, of a sharp, piercing regret, an ache for that wild spirit caged at last within Salisbury Tower” (p. 143).  Wild spirit, indeed.  And again, just because this is Ye Olden Times, you do not need to give narrators olden-ish Thoughts just to make sure we readers understand these characters Think Differently Because They Are Not Of This Millennium, and then suddenly undermine said Thoughts to make the narrator Relatable And Believable for us modern-day, easily gullible readers. 1 out of 10.

Here Be Dragons

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One thought on “Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman

  1. I read the Sunne in Splendour many years ago, and quite enjoyed it – but found the faux mediaeval language increasingly irritating, and so never tried another Penman (and never will). Your comparison to Dunnett is spot on. I think the Napoleonic dragons may be the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (which I’ve not read. I don’t actually read much at all these days).

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