When King Henry I’s only legitimate son William dies, the whole of England is dismayed when the king names his daughter Maude as heir to the throne. Despite Maude’s royal blood and her father’s endorsement, the people of England worry about her ability to rule: not only has she lived much of her life abroad, but she is also a woman and thus unfit to rule. In addition, the people will not accept her husband, the hotheaded and sometimes cruel Geoffrey of Anjou, as an acceptable king. So when Maude’s first cousin Stephen lays claim to the throne of England, he finds many supporters despite his own blunders and cluelessness as a politician. Maude is enraged by Stephen’s power grab and promptly retaliates, and soon the entire country is at war. This novel tells the epic story of the civil war between Stephen and Maude and the birth of the Plantagenet dynasty, as well as painting portraits of the most influential historical figures of the time.
This novel is extremely long and epic in scope, embracing scores of characters – some real, some fictional – as they navigate their way through one of the most turbulent times in English history. In a sense, the book is a tough read, because there’s not one clear protagonist; instead, the myriad characters all have their own stories, which weave in and out of the larger historical tapestry. However, between the intrigues and battles, politics and lovemaking, friendships and jealousy, it is also a very entertaining read. Penman makes the Middle Ages come to life: she re-creates the world of twelfth-century England in vivid detail, and she makes the dusty old historical figures seem like real people. One of my favorite sections of the book was the description of Stephen’s attack on Shrewsbury, because it also provides the backdrop for one of my favorite books, Ellis Peters’ One Corpse Too Many. Though I may need a short break before continuing with the Plantagenet trilogy, I’ll definitely be returning to it soon!