I’ve had this sat on my kindle for the longest time – I bought it during a period in which I was reading pretty much nothing but historical fiction – and, despite it being set during one of my favourite historical periods, hadn’t thought much about picking it up ever since. Until I asked my boyfriend which book I should read next and, thinking it would be about actual dragons, he picked this.
Here Be Dragons must be an incredibly fat book, starting as it does in the late twelfth century during the last years of the reign of King Henry II and ending in the mid-thirteenth, during the reign of Henry III. But this book isn’t really concerned with the Henry’s, instead concentrating on the dark days of the reign of King John, the life and marriage of his bastard daughter, Joanna, and her husband, Prince Llewellyn Ap Iowerth of Wales. John’s reign – and indeed that of many subsequent kings – was studded with battle after battle with the Welsh who, despite having to pay regular homage to John, weren’t particularly keen on the constant encroachments of the English (or rather, the Normans, as they thought of themselves at that time) into their lands and so frequently retaliated, burning the crops and castles of the invaders and showing at every turn that they should never be underestimated when it came to warfare, no matter how outnumbered they were.
Here Be Dragons attempts to bring that period to life, breathing personality into the names and events of the time, and somewhat succeeds, even if it makes said events feel pretty soapy at times, shoehorned into the romance of Joanna and Llewellyn. Penman clearly knows her historical stuff, and does manage to come up with characters that feel more real than some of the more white-washed (or, in John’s case, more obviously Bad) versions that we’ve read about over the years, but I occasionally felt that her passion for the history outweighed her storytelling ability, with characters who apparently knew one another and their histories reciting lists of events and backstory at one another to ensure that the reader knew what in the gibbering flip was going on. This was compounded by the fact that Penman often chose to skip years at a time between chapters, with the majority of the big events taking place off-page, as we read about Joanna feeling guilty about her dad instead, only to have to be caught up by peripheral characters in exposition dumps. There were also times when the book started to feel like it was becoming a slog, with not much of anything going on at all other than Joanna disbelieving that her dad could be the utter shit that everyone else knew him to be, and whenever we got to one of those sections (which were more and more frequent as time went on), I’d start to wonder if the book was ever going to end.
That said, Penman did do a good job of imparting quite a lot of information about the Welsh, who have always simply appeared as brief mentions in the English histories that I’ve read, giving us a clearer picture of Welsh culture and how it differed from that of England, as well as some of the personalities who have shaped their history. If anything, Here Be Dragons has piqued my interest in reading further about said history, but if I’m honest, I’ll be doing it in the company of someone other than Penman.