Here be a great book! A review of Penman’s Here Be Dragons

I first discovered Sharon Kay Penman in the Silver Spring library and I’m glad I did as I consider her to be one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Often times historical novelists can be described in one of two ways: they are either very good at prose or they are very good at research. Gore Vidal has a great talent for sentence construction and pithy sayings but the research that informed The Golden Age is sub-par to say the least. Evaluating the prose of a historical novel is inherently subjective, some of my friends love Hilary Mantel and some can’t get past the first chapter of Wolf Hall, but I think anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction has come across at least one well-researched novel they just couldn’t get into.

Sharen Kay Penman, however, is different: she excels at prose and research. Her stories are filled with beautiful, heart-rending scenes–colored by Penman’s vivid imagination but always informed by pain-staking scholarship–and there may be no better example of this than Here Be Dragons.

The story begins in the late 12th century and within the first fifty pages, we are introduced to a litany of characters. Many of these characters have little importance to the plot, some never show up again, and some readers will probably find this off-putting. Historical fiction has many unwritten rules–stick to one POV per section, avoid omniscient narrating, stay away from confusing names–and Penman breaks pretty much all of them. Nonetheless, her writing and her research are so compelling that I think most readers can forgive her these sins.

At times the number of characters we are supposed to keep track of can get overwhelming but the first half of the book revolves largely around three characters: John, Joanna, and Llewelyn.

Each character is interesting in their own right but John’s POV was unexpectedly moving. By and large, we don’t have much reason to like John. He is a narcissistic philanderer with few redeeming qualities and he only becomes worse once he gains more power.

In his mind, he is ever the victim, even when is carrying out terrible atrocities, and he cannot comprehend why anyone would dare to disagree with such a simple truth. Unwilling to heed the advice of learned statesmen, he careens from crisis to crisis with alarming speed and Englanders soon grow weary of his ineptitude. By the end of his life, John has lost favor with just about everyone he holds dear: his wife, his relatives, his advisors, even his children. His final days are filled with unbearable pain, but he accepts it all with impressive equanimity. The imminent prospect of death inspires no small amount of introspection and John remarks, “I think I always knew I would die alone.” It is his most powerful line in all the book and I often find myself thinking on this line when I reflect on John’s storyline. John is an undeniably cruel man and while the line doesn’t justify his cruelty, I think it does help explain his vindictive tendencies and his bitter persona. 

John, however, is by no means the only interesting character in the book. His illegitimate daughter, Joanna, makes for a fascinating character and her decisions often drive the plot. Many readers will probably find her thought process frustrating, I often put down the book because I’d be so upset by Joanna’s actions but then I’d have to pick it up again to see how things would play out, but I suspect there are few readers who hate or even strongly dislike her character. If that’s not a testament to Penman’s skill as a writer, it’s hard to know what is.

As for a character that’s easy to like, few of Penman’s characters can hold a candle to Llewelyn. An accomplished diplomat and a skilled warrior, Llewelyn dedicates his life to winning independence for Wales. His ambition is as consuming as it is absolute, but as Penman notes in the epilogue, his dream did not long survive him. Considering the many sacrifices that Llewelyn made on behalf of his country, his inability to win meaningful independence for Wales is all the more galling. 

Whether readers are interested in British history or social drama, I highly recommend Here Be Dragons and look forward to reading more of Penman’s work.

Review of Gunpowder miniseries: lots of flash, not much bang

The 2017 miniseries Gunpowder was headlined by Kit Harrington (better known to most audiences as Jon Snow) and backed by HBO but it hardly seems to have left an impression with most TV viewers. Viewership numbers are not disclosed on TV by the numbers but judging by the figures posted on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, critics were not very impressed with Gunpowder. Having finished the series not too long ago, I can understand the lukewarm reception it received.

Just to be clear, Gunpowder was not a bad show. The pilot is quite entertaining and so is the follow up episode. If the final episode had been stronger, Gunpowder would probably be remembered as a pretty good show. Sadly, the finale failed to live up to the preceding episodes and, considering there were only three episodes in the entire miniseries, this drop in quality had outsize consequences.

The strongest character in the show was Guy Fawkes, both in a literal sense and a figurative sense. He endures brutal, ceaseless torture at the hands of his captors but refuses to divulge the names of his fellow conspirators, even when it is abundantly clear that plot to bring about a “restoration of true religion” has failed miserably. Eventually, his captors tire of torturing him and haul him before a cheering crowd for an execution ceremony that could rival a flowery death in its gore.

Were he a weaker man, Fawkes might have had to endure the unceremonious death that many of his Catholic brethren suffer, but he summons the last of his strength to issue a feral roar and leaps off his hanging post to spare himself a painful ordeal. In life, as well as captivity, his impressive strength is plain to see and he easily bests his fencing opponents in a gripping fight that serves as a highlight of the second episode in the miniseries. From a character standpoint, Guy Fawkes is also one of the strongest in the ensemble and it’s a shame actor Tom Cullen did not get more screen time. That may have meant cutting back on the scenes involving Catesby’s young son, but that probably would have been for the best anyway.

Perhaps the biggest error the show makes is that it passes up the chance to say something important. Religious terrorism is an incredibly important topic when it comes to modern life and almost every major world region is affected by it in some way, shape, or form. Guy Fawkes may not be the Western world’s first religious terrorist but he is certainly an early and interesting example. The pilot does a great job of making it clear to viewers that Catholics suffer brutal persecution in post-Elizabethan England and the motivations of the Gunpowder conspirators are pretty understandable considering the fate of Catholics discovered by law enforcement.

To be fair, there are moments where the show explores the way hardliner policies can contribute to extremism, the conversation between Father Garnet and Sir Wade is a great example of this, but they are few and far between. Instead, a great many scenes are dedicated to the relationship between Catesby and his son, a dynamic that has some importance for the plot but is not interesting enough to merit so much screen time. The show creators, however, seem to disagree and the final scene of the show deals not with the Gunpowder conspirators, or their would-be victims, but Catesby’s son. Had the show just focused more on the major characters and taken more time to explore the interesting questions raised by the Gunpowder plot, the miniseries would have been much stronger.