Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dragon's Lair by Sharon Kay Penman

book cover

Dragon's Lair
by Sharon Kay Penman

Trade Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books
First Released: 2003

Source: Bought in library book sale.

Back Cover Description:
July 1193. King Richard Lionheart lies in a German prison, held for ransom by the emperor. His mother, Dowager Queen Eleanor, ransacks England for gold to buy his freedom, while his younger brother, John, plots with King Philippe of France to ensure that he rots and dies in chains.

When a ransom payment vanishes, Eleanor hastily dispatches young Justin de Quincy to investigate. In wild, beautiful Wales, his devotion to the queen will be supremely tested–as an arrogant border earl, a cocky Welsh prince, an enchanting lady, and a traitor of the deepest dye welcome him with false smiles and deadly conspiracies. The queen’s treasure is nowhere to be found, but assassins are everywhere . . . and blood runs red in the dragon’s lair.

Dragon's Lair is a mystery set in 1193 in England and Wales. This novel was the third book in the series, but you don't need to have read the first two in order to understand this one. I haven't read the first two (yet), and it didn't appear that reading the books out of order spoiled the previous mysteries.

The historical detail was woven into the story and was accurate was far as I know, though the author occasionally had the characters use a modern turn of phrase. The political situation was described in a somewhat more obvious manner since it was the underlying motivating force behind the mystery and the author probably realized that most people know more legend than real history from that time period.

The characters were engaging and interesting. I liked how Justin had his sense of honor and stuck to it, but not in a snobbish way. The pacing was very good, and the mystery was a true "try to guess who did it." The author played the clues out very cleverly so that the reader could guess some parts before Justin but other parts were a mystery until the very end.

The novel was a bit crude at times and sex was implied or referred to, but there was no explicit sex. There was a minor amount of "he swore" style bad language. Overall, I'd recommend this novel as well-written and fairly clean reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Prologue
July 1193
Nottingham Castle, England

The English king was dying. Despite the bone-biting chill of the dungeon, he was drenched in sweat and so gaunt and wasted that his brother barely recognized him. His skin was ashen, his eyes sunken, and his chest heaved with each rasping shallow breath. Even the vivid reddish-gold hair was dulled, so matted and dirty that vermin were burrowing into the scalp once graced by a crown. Would their lady mother still be so eager to cradle that lice-ridden head to her breast?

As if sensing he was no longer alone, Richard struggled to rise up on an elbow, rheumy, bloodshot eyes blinking into the shadows. The voice that once could shout down the wind, that was heard from one corner of Christendom to the other even when he whispered, now emerged as a feeble croak. "John...?"

"Yes." Stepping into the meager light of the lone candle, John savored the moment to come. Had Fortune's Wheel ever spun so dizzily as this? The irony was exquisite, that the brother so scorned and belittled should be Richard's only chance of salvation. "What would you, brother? You wish for a doctor? A priest? A king's ransom?" The corner of John's mouth curved, ever so slightly. "You need only ask, Richard. But ask you must."

Richard stretched out a stranger's hand, one that trembled as if he had the palsy, palm upward in the universal gesture of supplication. John reached for it reluctantly, for it would be like clasping hands with a corpse. Their fingers touched, then entwined. As John instinctively recoiled, Richard tightened his hold. There was surprising strength in this deathbed grip; to his alarm, John found he could not break free. Richard's fingers were digging into his flesh, leaving talon-like imprints upon his skin. So close were they that John could smell on Richard's breath the fetid stench of the grave, and his brother's eyes were as grey as their sire's, burning with fever and an inexplicable gleam of triumph.

"Rot in Hell, Little Brother," Richard said, slowly and distinctly. "Rot in Hell!"

John jerked upright in the bed, so violently that his bedmate was jarred abruptly from sleep. Ursula felt a surge of drowsy annoyance, for this was not the first time that John had awakened her with one of his troubled dreams. She was not so naive as to complain, though, indulging herself only with a soft, put-upon sigh and a pout safely hidden in the dark.

As the German dungeon receded before the reality of his bedchamber, John began to swear, angrily and profanely. Why had that accursed dream come back? It made no sense, for Richard was not being held in irons; last report had him being well treated now that negotiations had begun for his release.

Read chapter one.

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