Welsh Princes Trilogy Book 1 : Here Be Dragons


Sharon Kay Penman




Date Reviewed:

March 14, 2009

ere Be Dragons is a daunting book - not only is it 700 pages long in the trade paperback edition that I read, but Here Be Dragons is merely the first book in a trilogy. Gulp - 2000+ pages to read the entire story? Here Be Dragons has (at the time I read it) 137 five star ratings out of a total of 156 reader reviews posted on Amazon. That's a pretty high score, even considering Amazon's notoriously generous ratings. So perhaps this book really is a wonderful tale? Perhaps at the end I would find myself wishing that it was even longer?

Now that I have finished reading Here Be Dragons, I can report that while this is a good book, but not a great book. It is the story of Joanna, the illegimate daughter of King John of England (yes, that King John, the evil brother of King Richard the Lionheart. Joanna is married to Llewelyn, who is the king of a portion of Wales. It is a political arrangement, Joanna is just 14 years old when she is married to Llewelyn, who is 18 years older than her. The novel covers the history of Wales over Joanna's lifespan.

The best part of the novel is the first half, when evil King John is on the scene. He is a violent, evil, tormented guy, but he makes a great character. While King John is around, there is always villainy and scheming a foot. We see much more of England, but after John's death, the story retreats almost entirely to Wales. Unfortunately, the book focuses almost entirely on Joanna after that point. Here Be Dragons is a historical romance, the first half of the book is more about history, the second half of the book pays more attention to romance. Entire wars are won or lost in a paragraph or two, but meanwhile there are pages and pages of about Joanna fretting about her feelings for Llewelyn.

When Joanna is not anxiously wringing her hands over the state of her relationship with Llewelyn, she is thinking about her father, the evil King John. Joanna simply can not reconcile the fact that the man she loves as her dad is capable of commiting some horrendous crimes. But this did not ring true to me. While a woman of the 20th century might be shocked and appalled by a man who orders assassinations, beheadings and other violent crimes, a woman of the 13th century would find such atrocities to be part of the routine cost of ruling a kingdom. Public torture and execution was a staple of medieval life, so why does it upset Joanna so much?

One of the biggest problems with the book is the jarring leaps in time that occur between chapters. For example, we meet Llewelyn as youth of fifteen who is determined to press his claim as rightful heir to the lands of Wales. Llewelyn's father has died, and his uncle has claimed the throne for himself. Despite his youth, Llewelyn decides to lead a campaign to regain his crown. But this entire dramatic story is skipped over - when we next encounter Llewelyn, he is in his thirties, his evil uncle has long since been defeated, and he has consolidated northern Wales under his control. There are a number of leaps like these between chapters, where whole years vanish with just a mention. I realize the book is already quite long, but I would rather Penman had cut out a lot of Joanna's internal musings and substituted some bloody warfare.

The lack of bloody carnage is another issue that I have in this book. Llewelyn fights constant wars with England and against Welsh rebels, but almost all of these battles occur entirely off stage. We see some of the negotiations after the fighting, but how about a few scenes where Llewelyn leads the charge of knights or engages in some desperate sword fighting? Here Be Dragons reminds me a lot of The Far Pavalions - another giant historical romance novel where almost all the fighting and espionage occured off stage, while the feelings of the heroine fill too many paragraphs.

I wish there had been a better map in the front of the novel. I am not at all familar with Wales, and many of the places mentioned in the book are not shown on the map. The warfare seems to be constant! I am sure Penman didn't invent any of these battles, Wales must indeed been under ceaseless attack from England or between rebel Welsh lords trying to stake their own claims. It is hard to keep track of how many times Llewelyn rides out to do battle (off stage, of course) only to have things end in yet another treaty in which castles are exchanged, ransoms paid, and oaths of fealty sworn. It seemed puzzling to me that once someone swears an oath of fealty and then breaks it, why would you ever allow the guy to pledge his oath again?

There is an interesting story here. It made me consider that perhaps a visit to Wales might be nice - is it really such a wild, beautiful country? Llewelyn is an excellent character, I wish the novel had been told from his point of view rather than from Joanna. The many chapters where he is absent on his campaigns are the slowest. There are two novels to go, presumably the next book will deal with more Welsh princes battling for the crown.