So why is Richard Coeur de Lion (the Lionheart) still heralded as one of the greatest monarchs ever to rule England? Sharon Kay Penman started to answer that question in her previous novel, Lionheart, which chronicled Richard's military prowess during the Third Crusade. Now, in the sequel, A King's Ransom (Putnam, 704 pages, $35), Penman turns her spotlight on Richard's political acumen as he struggles to return home in time to thwart his onetime ally (and some say lover), King Philip II of France, who is scheming with Richard's younger brother, Prince John, to steal his kingdom.
Like most historians, Penman says she can find no evidence Richard preferred the company of men in his royal bedchamber, although a sexual encounter with Philip is a major plot point in The Lion in Winter, which she describes in the author's note as "one of my favorites." That movie, co-starring Anthony Hopkins as a young Lionheart, continues to color the public's image of Richard, although the notion he was gay may stem from a misunderstanding of a common medieval custom. Royals of the same sex frequently shared a bed for the night after forming an alliance (as Richard did with Philip against Richard's father, Henry II, in 1187), but only, Penman writes, to demonstrate their solidarity.
In any case, there's no love lost between Philip and Richard by the time A King's Ransom opens in 1192. Richard embarks for England after concluding the Third Crusade by signing a peace treaty with his Muslim nemesis, Saladin, that guarantees the safety of Christians visiting Jerusalem. Philip, meanwhile, has already left the Holy Land for France to threaten Richard's Angevin empire.
As with Penman's four previous novels on the Plantagenet dynasty, A King's Ransom is not historical romance but historical fiction of the first order, a narrative synthesis of the royal marriages and petty rivalries, the personal slights and gestures of loyalty, the grand deeds and simple twists of fate that shape events. There is the odd, stray anachronism, as when Duke Leopold of Austria and Richard quote Scripture at each other, presumably in Latin, but Penman translates the verses into the familiar English of the King James Bible, which wouldn't be published for another four centuries. Such flaws are perhaps inevitable in a project of this scope. Instead of history that reads like a novel, Penman achieves something greater: a novel that reads like history.
GO: Sharon Kay Penman visits Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651, on Tuesday, March 11. 7 pm. Free.