by Sharon Kay Penman
Reviewed by Carrie Uffindell
Devil's Brood is the long-awaited final novel in Sharon Kay Penman's Henry II trilogy, which chronicles the turbulent life of the medieval king whose empire stretched from the shores of Britain to the Pyrenees Mountains.
The first book in the trilogy, When Christ and His Saints Slept, opens in 1135 AD, soon after the death of King Henry I. He leaves only one legitimate child -- a strong-willed daughter named Maude. Unable to accept a woman on the throne, England's barons, along with Maude's cousin Stephen, conspire to steal her crown. Over the next 19 years, Maude and Stephen fight one another bitterly, plunging the country into a bloody civil war. Among Maude's loyal supporters is her ambitious son and heir, Henry, who covets both the English crown and the beautiful Queen of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Time and Chance, the second novel, picks up two years after Henry's triumphant succession to the English throne and four years after his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Over the span of 15 years, he restores peace to England, brings his unruly barons to heel, and expands his borders in Europe. As Henry's power and influence spreads, however, his relationships suffer, most especially with his wife Eleanor and his newly appointed archbishop, Thomas Becket. Before long, Becket and Henry are locked in a hostile battle culminating in Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral.
Devil's Brood opens two years after Time and Chance ends, in 1172 AD. While Henry is still a powerful king in his prime, he continues to struggle with the ramifications of Becket's death. However, it is not Becket's death that will define Henry's later years, but his own personal failings with his family. Chafing under their father's tight control and aided by their mother, Henry's eldest three sons rebel against him. The betrayal sends Henry into a tailspin and his harsh reaction delivers a blow from which the family never recovers.
Writing about such well-documented historical people and events is no small feat, but Penman handles it masterfully. She breathes life and purpose into these long-dead men and women whose actions shaped Europe's Middle Ages, giving attention even to those who are now just names filling contemporary annuals and chronicles. Her portrayals of Henry, Eleanor, the French kings, and their royal progeny are thoughtful, complex, and compassionate.
For some readers, Devil's Brood calls to mind James Goldman's play The Lion in Winter that revolves around a dramatic (yet fictional) Christmas court in which Henry, Eleanor, and their sons bicker, plot, and attempt to seduce one another. (It was made into a wonderful movie starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn.) While some similarities are to be expected, Penman's historical accuracy and understanding of medieval culture is far superior, especially in regards to Richard's sexuality, Henry's affair with Princess Alys, and John's character.
Penman is a veteran of the time period, having written 10 previous historical novels, all set in the Middle Ages. These include a trilogy set in 13th-century Wales and England, a mystery series set in the late 12th century featuring Justin de Quincy and a later-in-life Queen Eleanor, and a stand-alone novel about the life of Richard III titled The Sunne in Splendor.