Sharon Penman has always been one of my favourite authors, but this is not my favourite book of hers.

When Christ and his Saints Slept

The novel chronicles the dark time for England following the death of King Henry the first. His son and heir had drowned in a shipwreck, so he named his daughter as his heir. This was not a popular move — few believed a woman capable of wielding a monarch’s power and even fewer wanted her Norman husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, to be pulling her strings. Enter Stephen, King Henry’s nephew, who upon Henry’s death claims the throne for himself. The resulting civil war is long and full of atrocities on both sides.

Penman’s true talent is her characterisation. The plot and the history is excruciatingly well researched from what the experts say, but the thing that always pulls me in is how she enables the reader to identify with each character, explaining their motivations for actions now only contained in the dusty and dry tomes of history. We feel sorrow at their defeats and humiliations, joy in their successes and loves.

Both Maude and Stephen are given equal time, giving us insight into their side of the story. It also provides insight into their failings. For both were terribly flawed. Stephen too receptive, generous and forgiving, Maude unable to take advice or compromise her principles to woo her people or her allies.

The thread that links both in the novel is Ranulf — a by-blow of the old King Henry who served as a page in Stephen’s household but also later as a squire in the household of Maude’s most loyal supporter, her half brother Robert. Ranulf was unfortunately created by Penman, which I didn’t know until reading the author’s note. When I read her confession I felt terribly cheated. One of the things I love the most in about Penman’s novel is the thought that everything actually happened (with some changes for dramatic effect.) The idea that I’d invested so much attention and emotional capital into someone who didn’t even exist made me cranky. I don’t expect anyone else to feel the same way, especially if they are picking up Penman for the first time.

The other disappointment was Penman’s portrayal of Maude’s son Henry and his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine, who are the focus of the end of the book. After the superb portrayal of Maude and Stephen’s failings, Penman’s description of Henry’s prowess and perfection felt one dimensional. Eleanor was better portrayed, but not a patch on the author’s portrayal of her in the later books when she was older, wiser and more touched by sorrow. Penman herself admits she found it difficult to write about the tempestuous lovers’ younger years and it shows.

In summary, this is not my favourite Penman, but it’s still street ahead of the works of any other historical fiction writer I’ve ever read. (The closest for me are bestseller Bernard Cornwell and German author Rebecca Gable.) I’m going to give it a 4 out of 5.