I absolutely love the historical novels of Sharon Kay Penman. I read The Sunne in Splendour, with Richard III as the hero, a year or so ago, but then decided to read the Plantagenet series (5 books in all) in chronological order (i.e., when the action takes place, not when Penman wrote them). First up, was When Christ and His Saints Slept.
Here's the Amazon blurb to set the stage:
A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England's King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry's beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.The book took me awhile to complete. At 746 pages, it's not a slender book, and it's fairly dense with lots of characters and battles to keep track of. That said, it's very readable, engaging, exciting, and interesting.
I confess that I went into the book not knowing much about the time between when Maude and Stephen's grandfather, William the Conqueror (aka the Bastard), invaded England in 1066 and when Henry II unwittingly had Thomas Becket murdered in the cathedral. This book filled in most of the gaps, and did so in fine historical fiction style.
Here are a few things I particularly enjoyed:
* The story of the sinking of the White Ship--one of biggest tragedies in English history. The sole surviving male heir of Henry I drowned in the English Channel shortly after his ship set sail from Barfleur. Henry then named his daughter Maude as his heir, but this was fraught with problems, leading to the civil war which ravaged Britain for 20 years.
* Ranulf, one of the few characters in the novel who is not based on a historical personage. He was one of Henry I's many illegitimate sons, and a sweet, loyal, fun-loving young man who matures into a wonderful man in the course of the story.
* Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II - I know them mostly from the magnificent movie, The Lion in Winter, which shows them later in life, battling royal and using their sons as pawns in their power play. But the Eleanor and Henry (aka Harry) of this book are young, passionate, clever, and well-matched. It was such a treat to read about their early years before things began to sour.
* Geography, castles, and rivers - I kept on looking up place names on my iPad while I read, and I feel like I have a much better feel for how medieval campaigns worked.
* A better understanding of why Henry VIII was so obsessed with siring a legitimate son. England was literally torn apart by barons who did not want to have a woman as their monarch. Right or wrong, this book illustrates the reality of what it meant to be a leader in the Middle Ages.
The next book in the series is Time and Chance, which continues the story of Eleanor and Henry II and Thomas Becket.
This book is part of my TBR Pile, Mount TBR, and Historical Fiction challenges. Three birds, one book!