Well, to me Sharon Kay Penman is and will always be the Queen of Historical Fiction, so let’s get that out of the way right up front. This is the third of her novels about the ill-starred marriage of two medieval powerhouses, Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitane. This one, as the title suggests, deals mainly with their four sons: Hal, Richard, Geoffrey and John, who spent most of their young adulthood at war with each other and their father before two of them died, leaving Richard and John to hate each other for the rest of their natural lives. Throw in a famously romantic love-match that ends with Henry keeping Eleanor in prison for the last 16 years of their marriage, and you’ve got a family that really puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional.”
Penman tackles all this dysfunction with her usual blend of exhaustive research and lucid, readable prose. There are places where she falls prey to the bane of the historical novelist, using dialogue to convey exposition in an obvious and clumsy way — the most frequent example being to introduce a character who has been away from the main flow of action who asks another character to bring him/her up to date on all the latest news (Eleanor is a great choice for this in Devil’s Brood, since she spends so much time in prison and people are constantly visiting her to update her on things she’s missed). But these transgressions are never egregious enough to pull the reader out of the story, which moves along as quickly as such an epic tale, covering so many characters, can do.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the story is too ambitious, which I think has been a fault with all of Penman’s later works. The first books of hers I read — The Sunne in Splendour and her Welsh trilogy — had the wonderful historical background but also an emotional depth and impact that stayed with me for years. This isn’t just the rosy glow of memory either — when I reread The Sunne in Splendour earlier this year, I was just as emotionally involved in Richard’s tragic and inevitable downfall as I was when I read it more than 20 years ago, and though I haven’t reread the Welsh trilogy, Nell’s grief at Simon de Montfort’s death still feels fresh to me.
In Penman’s more recent books, while she still tells a great story and brings historical characters to life vividly, I’ve found that emotional impact missing. The moment when Eleanor learns of Henry’s death — or indeed their last visit together, neither of them knowing it will be their last — should have that same emotional impact, because this is truly one of the great doomed love stories of history. But I found the emotion lacking in this trilogy, and I think it might be because Penman has spread herself too thin. She brings us into the lives of so many characters — each of Henry and Eleanor’s sons, as well as the parents themselves — which doesn’t give her time to explore any one person, or one relationship, in the depth it deserves. In terms of emotional impact, the best-drawn characters in this book were Geoffrey, probably the least-known historically of Henry and Eleanor’s sons, and Geoffrey’s wife Constance. Which is great, because I really felt Constance’s grief at Geoffrey’s sudden death, but the main characters needed to be as well-developed.
According to the Afterword (which Peman always includes, and which always answers a lot of my questions, and I thank her for that because it’s something all historical fiction authors should do, IMHO), she has more writing about the Angevin family in mind for the future, and I will certainly be picking up and reading any future books. I can always rely on Penman for a good, engaging, informative read, but I also really hope that in future novels she narrows her focus and gets some of her groove back in terms of tugging at the reader’s heartstrings a little, because I miss that.