Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman
The War of the Roses is cited as a main inspiration for George R R Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and as Sharon Penman’s novel is a highly regarded historical fiction of this period, I decided to tackle it.
The novel covers the life of Richard III, from boyhood to death, and on doing so, provides a detailed description of the latter years of the so-called War of the Roses.
The novel is written in third-person omniscient, but many chapters start with a different lead character to introduce different scenes and dynamics. Unfortunately, the author uses the “observer” device far too often, so it becomes tediously common for a scene to start with a seemingly irrelevant character, whose goal is to overhear a conversation between major characters.
Luckily, the prose itself is very engaging and detailed, and regardless of POV quirks, the story really does create a sense of life to this very turbulent period of English history.
We see knights in shining armour doing inglorious deeds, internal and national politics played out, and a large cast of characters from the historical period, with little left out.
The whole experience is generally thrilling and engaging, and much of the book is hard to put down.
Where the book does show a great weakness is in the attempt to absolve Richard III of any of the notoriety instilled by admittedly later propagandist works, not least William Shakespeare play which had to glorify the Tudors over the Plantagenets, or else criticise Elizabeth I’s right to rule.
The result is that, towards the end, the book does lose a sense of drama as Penman insists on drawing us into Richard III’s relationship with his wife, showing him as a loving husband and father. While convincing to a degree, if somewhat dull, the attempt to make Richard III essentially blameless and innocent of most any mistake becomes a little tiring, and rests uneasily with the historical record.
That aside, the characters in this piece really are brought very nicely alive, and Edward IV manages to steal the limelight through much of the book, not least as a man of almost chivalric character: a great warrior, a cunning tactician, but too forgiving, and given over to the charms of women a little too much. Something actually reflected in the history of the period.
In the later power struggles, it can easily become apparent where George R R Martin might have drawn inspiration, especially for characters such as Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark, and Cersei Lannister. It is a testament to Penman’s writing that she can really draw out these character conflicts from the dry historical coverage of the period.
As a book, Sunne is Splendour is very long – too long in parts – and a mix of strengths and weaknesses. The use of POV sometimes weakens the narrative, and the urge to exonerate Richard III demands a suspension of disbelief from anyone with even a small reading of the period.
However, it is an engaging book and at its heights really is quite unparalleled with anything I’ve read. The depth of the political dynamics mixed with the different strengths of character is quite an achievement, and brings the period vividly to life.
For those with an interest in the mediaeval world, this is an historical fantasy probably worth seeking out. For everyone else, it can require a degree of patience to read to the end.
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