Sharon Kay Penman concludes her sprawling saga of the wildly dysfunctional Angevin dynasty with A King’s Ransom, which covers the second half of King Richard “Lionheart” I’s shortish life and brings to a close the story of most of his family members — the ones who haven’t died in the previous novels, that is. Richard, his sister Joanna, and his indefatigable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine all get their deathbed moments in this novel, leaving the unpopular younger brother of “King John was not a good man, he had his little ways” fame to carry on and rule England and the various bits of the France the family was always fighting to hang onto.
As the novel opens, Richard is on his way home from his crusade in the Holy Land, only to be captured and held prisoner by a not-so-Holy Roman Emperor. While his mother is scurrying around Europe trying to raise money and pressure people to get Richard freed, his brother John and the French king Philippe are doing the opposite — raising the cash for a counter-offer to keep Richard in prison forever so that John will be free to rule. Needless to say, there are some fun family dynamics here.
As with all of Penman’s novels, this one is backed by tons of solid research and a knowledge of the period so detailed you feel like a genuine time-traveller. The characters are recognizably people from another place and time with a worldview and priorities distinctly different from ours — yet they are also human and relatable, and we feel for their sorrow and anguish even when we don’t always understand the decisions they’ve made. Very few writers, if any, bring us in to the past as skilfully as Sharon Kay Penman does, and it’s always worth the wait for one of her books.