Lionheart is the latest of Penman’s sagas about the Angevin kings of England, following her two volumes about Henry I and Eleanor of Aquintaine, Time and Chance and The Devil’s Brood. This book, as you might guess from the title, tells the story of Henry and Eleanor’s most famous son, Richard I of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart.
Richard I is a king with a larger-than-life legacy, loved by some and hated by others. This novel follows his career just for two years, during the Crusades and his unsuccessful attempt to capture Jerusalem. The cast of characters is large — large enough that I kept getting minor characters confused. The two most important characters, other than Richard himself, are his widowed sister Joanna and his young bride Berengaria.
Like all Penman’s books, this one is meticulously researched, well-written and sweeping in its scope. However, I do have to say with some disappointment, as I did with my review of The Devil’s Brood, that it lacks the emotional punch of her earlier works, The Sunne in Splendour and the Welsh trilogy. The Sunne in Splendour was a maginificent book about another controversial Richard, Richard III, and the main character of that novel has lingered in my memory for years as a haunting and completely believable human being. While Penman does a better job with Richard I than many other writers would have done, he doesn’t carry that same emotional resonance for me at all. There were times, in reading the book, that I felt bogged down in military and political detail, rather than carried along by the characters and their interactions with one another. I will certainly read her follow-up book, A King’s Ransom, when it comes out, but I really hope Penman can recapture some of the magic of her earlier books, because I miss that.
This is a great, fast-moving and insightful memoir by a guy who was drawn to faith at an early age — Cron gives a moving description of his first Holy Communion acting like a tether, holding onto him even when he let go of God. Cron subsequently loses his faith and finds it again, but there’s nothing easy or predictable about this journey. He vividly depicts the reality of growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family with an alcoholic parent, of struggling to define his own identity, of rediscovering God as a young adult but learning that faith doesn’t magically make all the pain and problems go away.
I found Cron’s writing absolutely engaging, often funny, and always thought-provoking. If I had one quibble with the book it was the part about the CIA. Among his many other oddities, Cron’s father worked part-time for the CIA. That’s an interesting little detail, but (to me) it was in no way essential to the plot of the story, and if it had been left out the book would have been just as thought-provoking and poignant and intriguing. The fact that the CIA is given such prominence in the title to me feels like one of those annoying marketing “hooks” used to convince the reader that there’s something quirky and original about this book that makes it unlike any other. Sure, you’ve read spiritual memoirs, but have you read one with the CIA in it? Thought not!
The thing is, there’s not really much about the CIA in this book, and what there is is mildly interesting – I certainly don’t mind it being there if it’s genuinely a part of Cron’s childhood experience – but the book doesn’t need that. It could be titled Jesus, My Father and Me much more accurately, because that’s really all about — a guy muddling through his messed-up relationship with his messed-up dad, to find a solid grounding in the love of his Heavenly Father. So if the CIA thing lures you in, that’s OK, but don’t be disappointed that there’s not more of it in the book, because that’s really not what the book’s about. It’s about a journey of faith and grace, through the mess we all slog through, and like all such stories when they’re honest (which is not the same as being strictly factually accurate) and well-told, it’s beautiful.
I’m looking forward to picking up Cron’s other book, a novel about St. Francis, because I love both his writing and the way he views God and the life of faith. Watch for another review coming … whenever I can get my virtual hands on the book.