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Carpe Librum

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Historical Novel Society

Review: When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

When Christ and His Saints Slept: A Novel - Sharon Kay Penman

Sometimes I have a difficult time deciding how to rate a book. I expect to find that a 5-star book stands out among the millions of written pages out there. This one does. I have read it before and knew exactly what would happen, but that didn't stop tears from forming in my eyes at times as Penman skillfully made history come alive.

Even the title is more eye-catching and thought provoking than most. When Christ and His Saints Slept was an era of English history fraught with unfortunate events beginning with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120. Henry I, who had managed to sire at least 20 illegitimate children, had only one legitimate male heir. William was expected to be England's next king until he got on board the beautiful but doomed vessel.

Henry I makes his daughter Maude (Matilda) his heir in one of the worst considered last testaments of all time and throws England into a 20 year civil war so bloody and tormented that it was believed that Christ and His saints slept. Maude intends to fight for the crown that few believe any woman should wear, and is shocked when her cousin, Stephen of Blois, is the one to steal it from her.

Enough of restating history, you can find the details of the struggles between Maude and Stephen easily enough. What you will not find is a telling of their lives that is as detailed, moving, and well-written as Penman's. The cast of characters in this novel is amazingly large, but developed well enough that the reader can track them as though they are friends (or enemies). The rich detail of scenery, battles, and historical detail is second to none. The reader will learn as much as if reading non-fiction, while at the same time be entertained by the personalities, humor, and just a little bit of romance. No other author creates a whole world as realistically as Sharon Kay Penman. She is in a league of her own. The reader can sympathize with Maude and cry for Stephen and not find any reason why that should not be so. Picking sides is as difficult for those reading their story now as it was for their nobles those many years ago.

After the back and forth, years of sacrifice and struggle, this installment concludes with the ascendancy of Henry II. He seems like the golden savior of England, and I was almost brought to tears again seeing the beginning of his rule so full of hope and knowing how it is to end. His and Eleanor's story is just beginning when this novel ends, but is continued in the next volume, Time and Chance.