The Queen’s Man by Sharon Penman

The Queen’s Man by Sharon Penman
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Fern

Epiphany, 1193: the road out of Winchester was hidden by snow, and Justin de Quincy was making slow progress when he heard the first faint shout. It came again, louder and clearer, a cry for help. Spurring his stallion, de Quincy raced toward the source.

But he was already too late. As the two assailants fled, de Quincy cradled the dying man, straining to make out his whispered words. “They did not get it,” he rasped. “Promise me. You must deliver this letter to her. To the queen.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine sits on England’s throne. At seventy, she has outlived the husband with whom she had once scandalized the world. But has she also outlived her favorite, her first-born son? Richard Lionheart, England’s king, has been missing these last months. It is rumored that he is dead. Many think his youngest brother plots to steal the crown. Only Eleanor’s fierce will can keep John from acting on his greed. Only a letter, splattered with the blood of a dying man murdered on the Winchester road, can tell her if Richard still lives.

With the same sure touch she has brought to her historical fiction, Sharon Kay Penman turns to the mystery form. Setting her story in a period she captured brilliantly in earlier novels, she introduces Justin de Quincy. Bastard-born, de Quincy is the son of a high cleric who never acknowledged him, bestowing on the boy–in lieu of name or fortune–only an education. As it happens, it is a gift that will take young de Quincy into the very centers of power–and into the heart of danger, making him the Queen’s man.
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Moving from the royal chambers in the Tower of London to the alehouses and stews of Southwark, from the horrors of Newgate Gaol to the bustling streets of Winchester, de Quincy proves his mettle as he tracks a brutal and cunning murderer and uncovers the sinister intrigues of Eleanor’s court.

It’s Epiphany of 1193 and after learning some recent truths that shake up his whole life, Justin De Quincy is at a loss what to do. On the road, he is witness to a brutal killing in what he first assumes is a random robbery. Justin offers the dying man solace and aid – and is given a blood-soaked letter destined for Eleanor of Aquitaine, a missive that will change the course of Justin’s life forever. Now on a highly secret mission for the Queen, with no knowledge of who can be trusted or what path is safest to tread, Justin’s life careens onto a completely different course.

I need to admit up front I’m not a massive reader of Historical stories. Sure, I love some Regency romance (particularly Amanda Quick) when I’m in the mood, and I’ll dabble occasionally in other styles of historical fiction. But I’m usually not keen and find they miss the mark with me. The only other author I generally find an exception to this rule is Sharon Penman. Her epics (particularly the Plantagenet series and the Welsh Princes series) are enormous tomes and well, well worth the time and effort to read them through carefully. Here Be Dragons is still one of my favorite books ever.

All that gushing aside, Penman tends to write enormous books that take a large effort to read. Her Queen’s Man series (four regular sized novels) are a marked difference and in some instances a welcome relief. These stories are much more digestible, they’re a regular paperback length and best of all they are basically a regular Medieval Mystery style of story. For readers just wanting a spot of historical fiction they are ideal and an excellent way to be introduced to Penman’s excellent characterizations and writing style.

The historical setting and accuracy are still very strongly woven through the stories – readers wanting a clean, wholesome and “whitewashed” style of history setting won’t find that here. There are public hangings, lepers and beggars and plenty of treachery and political intrigue. Penman does not tone down her style or historical details just to make the story more palatable for readers wanting a sweet and happy reading escape – but neither does she dwell or give too much gruesome detail to this harsh and often uninviting time period. I feel she makes an excellent balance between what were the realities of the time and a reader wanting a good read.

The plot itself is fairly standard. The Queen charges Justin after reading the missive into investigating the death he witnessed and seeing if there was deeper treachery lurking behind the seemingly simple murder-robbery. The real joy – aside from the exceptional detail to history and day-to-day life and realities that the book shares – is in the vibrant cast of characters and how they all slot together. Penman has managed to condense the joy and addictive qualities of her enormous epics into a bite-sized regular paperback sized story and I love this series simply because it’s so much easier to access.

Readers looking for a realistic and exceptionally researched and detailed historical novel with a solid mystery and a slew of royal and political shenanigans should find this story exceptional. I also adored the strong cast of characters and found the plot – while not overly taxing – to be engaging and well paced. Recommended.

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