CRUEL AS THE GRAVE by Sharon Penman

20 10 2011

England, 1193

I have been skirting around Sharon Penman’s novels for ages, I don’t know why, I am almost as big a fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine as she is. (I love her line at the end of the Author’s Note: “As long as I get to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her fascinatingly dysfunctional family, I have no complaints.”)

This story is a sequel to The Queen’sMan. And talking about Queen’s Men, it is exactly contemporary with Alys Clare’s Josse d’Aquin stories, and Josse is also very much a Queen’s man. I find the two different views of life at that time and in those circles fascinating.

In this story, Cruel As The Grave, the focus is on Prince John, who desperately wants to be king.

Queen Eleanor is torn in two, of course. She must hold the realm secure for her son King Richard and somehow raise the huge ransom demanded for his release. Yet John is also her son – and, as Penman points out, John was not brought up to consider family loyalties important: Eleanor and Richard had conspired repeatedly against King Henry.

But there is more to this book than Justin de Quincy acting as the Queen’s agent in an emotionally charged political situation.

We have his love-life – and he is a lovely man, a man any woman might grow fond of no matter what her station or her age. There is the beautiful Claudine. lady in waiting to the Queen, whom Justin adores but not longer trusts, sure she is secretly John’s agent and suspecting that she is also John’s mistress – one of the many. (“John, who cannot more than a night without a woman in his bed.”) And Nell, the keeper of an ale-house (as far below him when it comes to marriage as Claudine is above him, in this caste-ridden society – worse even thanIndia!) It is Nell who brings to Justin’s attention the murder of a pedlar’s fifteen- year-old daughter; another story, that in fact becomes the main story as Justin becomes more and more caught up in it. Two brothers had apparently been in love with the girl, a sexy innocent whom everyone adored, and it seems that one of them was the murderer. But which? The one who has been accused and is now in sanctuary atSt Paul’s, or the elder brother, the blue-eyed boy of the family.

There are some wonderful minor characters such as the murdered girl’s sweet little sister. nine-year-old Cati, as well as a sympathetic portrayal of Price John, and Eleanor herself at her best with charming young Justin.

Sharon, we have no complaints either, so long as we get to read about them!




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