Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Book Reviews: Medieval Romance Tales

The medieval period has always been considered a romantic era by many readers, young and old. Images of knights and dragons and beautiful maidens scamper across our minds, no matter how historically accurate we might pride ourselves on being. There is something about the rugged courage of knights on horseback that inspires many authors to create romantic tales of love and devotion. Although the medieval genre of historical romance seems overused, there are still some novels in which details of life in the Middle Ages transport us back in time to this illusive era.

The novels described below are written for an adult audience and contain some situations not suitable for younger readers. Historical authenticity oozes from the pages until you can examine the characters and their actions from their own viewpoint.

For a striking account of the 12th and 13th centuries, try Lords of the White Castle by Elizabeth Chadwick. You won't find any damsels in distress here; actually, the main character, Maud le Vavasour is a fiery young woman who knows exactly what she wants. Her aging husband Theobald is not actually what she would call a romantic, but he is kind to her and her stubborn father Robert cares for nothing else but a good political match. When Theobald dies suddenly and Maud is left a widow, she meets her match in a young and daring stranger named Fulke FitzWarin. Their paths cross in so many ways until they decide they must marry in any way possible.

You will be able to find historical information on Fulke FitzWarin, a real nobleman who lived in the era of Robin Hood and defied England's King John until John's enmity caused Fulke to become an outlaw. In fact, there are some people who believe Fulke FitzWarin was "the" Robin Hood we all know so well. If you are a stickler for family genealogy (as I am) and can trace your roots back to medieval England, you may just discover some of these historical characters hiding within your own family tree!

Other books by Elizabeth Chadwick include The Winter Mantel, a tale of romance in the 11th century, and The Conquest, a story of the many differences between Norman captors and their Saxon captives. Be warned that some of these historical novels are fast-paced and switch from plotline to plotline, so if you don't know much about the battles and political intrigues of the times, it may help to brush up your knowledge.

Sharon Kay Penman's "Here Be Dragons" contains all the elements of medieval romance; love, intrigue, betrayal and triumph. The story begins by immediately fleshing out one of the main characters - Llewelyn, Prince of Wales - in a believable and likeable manner. His future wife Joanna, daughter of England's notorious King John, is presented first as a child, and then as a young woman forced to marry Llewelyn to further England's hopeful ties with Wales. Through the years she grows to deeply respect and admire her husband and together their love seems able to weather anything; until controversy within the family and their own lives causes them to grow apart. Joanna meets Will de Braose, a dashing young man known as "Black Will" for his romantic escapades. When they become lovers, Joanna must choose between this young impetuous rogue and her aging, kind husband who has never denied her anything.

Llewelyn, Joanna and Black Will, along with many others featured in "Here Be Dragons" are historical people; the real Will de Braose was hanged for his affair with Joanna, just as in the book. It is not known if Llewelyn and Joanna ever completely reconciled, but he never punished her for her part in the intrigue. History is somewhat vague about their life together after the incident occurred.

You can also find information on Llewelyn's life as "Llewelyn the Great," for he is indeed one of the great princes of Wales' legendary past. One interesting anecdote: While some novels may seem eager to portray King John as the dark prince that history suggests, "Here Be Dragons" struggles to create a man both cruel and kind, both calculating and passionate. It truly makes him a believable person rather than just a typical villain slithering across the pages.

Sharon Kay Penman has also authored Prince of Darkness, The Reckoning, and Cruel as the Grave, among other historical novels. If you enjoy Here Be Dragons and want another account of the life of the infamous John, Prince of Darkness is a must-read novel by Ms. Penman.

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