Llywelyn the Great

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Yesterday was the 776th anniversary of the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great. Born in 1173, he began to take control of North Wales when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was about 28, he was effectively the ruler of all Wales. He unified Wales, historically a nation often divided by war and clan fighting, and held the land in peace. Even during the difficult years when he was at odds with King John, Llywelyn eventually managed to regain lands he lost, and he held the respect of his retainers and the nobles. He is one of only two Welsh kings to be given the title Fawr, “the Great.”

As a lover of historical fiction, in particular, medieval historical fiction, some of my favorite novels feature Llywelyn Fawr or his contemporaries. The best novels bring his time to life in the most vivid ways, transport me to his castles at Dolwyddelan, on his campaign trail, at his feast table. It takes a special kind of talent to make history come alive and not turn it into a dry, boring textbook. I’ve ready plenty of historical fiction novels that read like straight history textbooks, and it was awful. All I could think of while reading those was that I hoped other readers didn’t pick those particular books up as their first exposure to the time period. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see how they would ever be intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, and that makes me sad. For those who have not yet discovered good historical fiction based on Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, below are some of the very best.

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Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Rich not only in (highly accurate) historical detail, but also in the complexities of medieval politics, kingship, and interpersonal relationships, Here Be Dragons is my favorite novel of medieval Wales. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book was the wedding night of Llywelyn and Joanna, the daughter of King John. She was young and scared, and Llywelyn, wanting to earn her trust, offered to delay consummating their wedding and opted instead to cut his arm so that she could show a bloodstained sheet to those wanting proof of her viginity.

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The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. This series is about the grandson of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also called Llywelyn the Last. It is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Llywelyn’s scribe and friend Samson. I rather like the first person account since it gives an immediacy to the story and an intimacy into just one aspect that we might not otherwise get to see. After all, we only can see life from our own perspective.

What others have you read?

A Morbid Taste For Bones

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As a die hard fan of medieval mysteries, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Ellis Peters for essentially starting the genre with this, the first entry in the Brother Cadfael series.

And what a treat it is! For a tiny book that inexplicably took me an inordinate length of time to read, this was really a fun story. Cadfael is a terrific character, full of quirks and orneriness. Love it! He’d be fun to hang out with.

The secondary characters were nicely developed. Brother John was awesome, and his minor story arc was delightful. Sioned was a strong, wonderful woman and I was glad to see her story have enough twists and turns to give her some adventure during her journey.

I liked that the bad guys weren’t so blatantly bad that Whodunnit was immediately obvious. There were some nice moral dilemmas and grey areas, which are really still relevant today.

Can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in this series.

Mistress of Mourning

Mistress of Mourning was the second novel I have read by Karen Harper. It was set in the earlier days of the Tudor dynasty, in the reign of Henry VII, and focused largely on the death of Arthur, Prince of Wales. The premise was interesting – a widowed chandler, Varina Westcott, is hired by the queen, Elizabeth of York, to carve effigies of her dead children and her missing brothers, the Princes in the Tower. Varina becomes the queen’s confidant and she is hired, along with the king’s man Nick Sutton, to go to Wales to investigate the death of Arthur, whom the queen believes did not die of illness but of foul play. Along the way, of course, are the requisite bad guys, traitors, and love stories.

The idea that Arthur was poisoned is intriguing. I am not sure I believe it myself, but Harper makes a compelling argument in favor of it. Given the prince’s poor health throughout his life, a Yorkist assassin slipping in a deadly herb that would cause symptoms resembling any number of illnesses isn’t too much of a stretch to be unrealistic. I suppose it could happen.

The issue with the Princes in the Tower felt a little rushed in the end. Henry’s confession felt a tad contrived, the explanation for their deaths too convenient. But I liked the homage to Henry II and Thomas Becket’s feud, and how Henry VII’s “confession” was similar to Henry II’s “order” to kill Becket.

In general, I liked the characters, though I felt they all needed more development. I thought that was a little odd since the other book I’d read by Harper had extremely well developed characters. Varina and Nick were, of course, the most thoroughly fleshed-out, though they still lacked some depth and had questions left unanswered. It wasn’t enough to detect from the overall plot, just something that was a bit strange considering the experience I had with her other book, Mistress Shakespeare.

Overall, a quick, fun read. Recommended for fans of Tudor history.

The Oracle Glass

When I can’t decide what book to read next, I just go down the alphabet of titles I have. I was on the letter O, and don’t actually have many choices for that one. The Oracle Glass was the next up, so I chose it. I honestly do not remember how I ended up owning this book. It is set in France and not in a time period I typically care at all about. It is magical realism/gothic, which is probably how it got on my TBR list, and an excess of gift money is probably the reason it ended up in my personal library. But I am not too sorry that it did. Read More »

Hand of Fire: interview with Judith Starkston

So, a cool thing happened this weekend with my book club meeting. A few months ago, while reading Sharon Kay Penman’s blog, she put up one of her infamous Book Bankruptcy Blogs. In it, I noticed a name I recognized – Judith Starkston, who was publishing a book called Hand of Fire.

“Is that… it can’t be… maybe it is a common name?” said my brain.

“I bet Google will know!” replied the rest of my brain. It can have some good ideas on occasion. So off we went to ask Google and lo, and behold! We were rewarded with a link! To a website! We clicked it!Read More »