Although I enjoyed some works of young-adult historical fiction when I was a kid, The Sunne in Splendour is the first big, chunky, blockbuster of an adult historical novel that I picked up and read soon after leaving my college days behind. I’ve reread it a few times in the intervening years, most recently over this Christmas break. I have to say that for me, this novel, along with Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII, sets the gold standard for historical fiction. Everything else has to be weighed in the balances and, usually, found wanting.
The Sunne in Splendour is primarily the story of Richard III — a very Ricardian, very non-Shakespearean take on Richard III, which portrays him as a good though deeply troubled man, loyal to his brother Edward IV yet shaken and in the end destroyed by Edward’s mistakes. But it’s not just Richard’s story — Penman uses the omniscient point of view skilfully, giving us the story from the perspective of Richard, Anne Neville, Edward, Edward’s wildly unpopular wife Elizabeth Woodville, and many other characters, while still keeping the story clearly focused on her main character. That’s not easy to do, and she does it well. As for using detail to create a sense of place and time — in this, as in her other novels, Penman does this so effortlessly that I suspect she’s actually discovered the secret of time travel and has really lived in medieval England. There’s just no other explanation.
Recently on another side I read a review by someone who’d loved this book 20 years ago (as I did), returned to reread it recently (as I did) and was completely let-down, finding that his tastes had changed and he didn’t like it anymore. I’m so glad to say that wasn’t my experience. I am a more critical reader now than I was 20+ years ago and I did notice flaws that I didn’t on earlier readings — particular that even Penman occasionally falls prey to the “use dialogue to awkwardly convey exposition” failing so common to historical fiction writers. But only occasionally — and never enough to pull me out of the story.
The life of Richard III, as Penman tells it, is a classic tragedy — you can see the inevitable end coming and know how unavoidable it is even as you are swept up in hoping it won’t happen. I would unreservedly recommend this book to anyone wanting to enjoy a big, powerful historical story with an appealing and believable hero. It’s an oldie but a goodie.