Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg (000_hester_000) wrote,
Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

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Hester tl;drs about a book she didn't like

The book: The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman.

I picked up this book expecting to like it. It's about Richard III, and frankly, I'm obsessed with Richard III. I would read the blurb on the back of a shampoo bottle if it had Richard in it. But this book? I couldn't finish it. I didn't even get halfway done; it's 927 pages long, and I got to page 436 before calling it quits. It wasn't bad per se, but it was... bland. Imho, no book about someone as controversial as Richard has any right to be that bland.

Whenever I read something and don't like it, I end up curious as to what other people thought about it, so I googled reviews for this book. Now I'm sort of floundering around, because it seems like nearly everyone else ever who's read it loved it; I'm not really sure what to make of that. So I guess I should say that all of this is very ymmv.

My problems with this book fall into three basic categories:

1. One of the things that people who liked this book most praise about it is that Penman very clearly did her research. And honestly, believe me, I do appreciate that. At least half of bad historical novels are bad because they're inaccurate, or because the characters hold views that make no sense for their time and place. I will admit that this one didn't suffer from either of those faults.

As a history major, I hate to say this, but honestly, though-- my issue with it is actually that I feel like the book is too much research, too little novel. Penman includes large parts of her research that aren't necessary to the story. For instance, if a character is thinking about a certain battle, unless the battle is important to the plot, there's no need to detail how the opposing armies got to the battlefield, what day it took place, how long it lasted, etc. etc. In fact, it feel somewhat unnatural for most people to be thinking that, especially characters who weren't themselves involved in the fighting. Basically, she uses her characters to infodump. I'm glad--- I really am--- that she did her research, but it's as if she couldn't determine which parts were important to the story and decided to throw everything in at random.

What bothered me more, however, was that she didn't seem comfortable making up things that weren't mentioned in the historical records. Look, these are people who lived ~500 years ago. A lot of information about their lives simply doesn't exist anymore. And guess what? If you're writing fiction, it's okay to fill in those blanks yourself. That was really one of my biggest issues with this book. Things that she couldn't find records for, she just sort of glosses over. In a nonfiction book, it's perfectly acceptable to say, "Little is known about Richard's illegitimate children or the circumstances of their birth." But in a novel, if the main character has kids, I want to know about his relationships with their mothers. I want to see the children get born.

And Penman just. Won't. Do that. There's a part shortly before I quit reading in which Richard and one of his friends are discussing a problem that has arisen with his son. The trouble is, the narrative never even mentioned him having a son prior to this! The book reads like Penman took a biography of Richard III and rewrote it as a novel but without adding anything substantial. Look. If I wanted to read a biography, I would read I biography. There are plenty out there of the guy. A novel should be something different.

2. This book has POV issues to an extent I don't think I've ever seen anywhere before. I'm thinking about writing some more, and so I've been considering advice I've seen various places about how POV should be handled. I was beginning to think that a lot of what people say about how to handle this correctly was just them being overly nit-picky; after all, I've read plenty of books in which the POV really made no sense and yet still enjoyed them.

And then I read this. The POV is just... bewildering. The narrative flits in and out of people's heads seemingly at random, and yet we hardly ever see any event from the perspective of the character it's actually happening to.

Actually, a lot of events we don't actually see at all. About half of the novel consists of people talking about things that have happened or are going to happen; rarely do we actually see them "on-screen." Someone's pregnant? Suddenly, there will be a scene of them holding the baby; we don't see the birth itself. Someone's going to be executed? You can bet we won't actually see that. There's going to be a battle? Long-ass scenes of people preparing for the battle, but very little actual fighting. Almost all of the action happens off-screen.

Some examples of what I'm talking about:

Near the beginning of the book, one of Richard's elder brothers, Edmund, gets stabbed by a Lancastrian lord. The scene is taking place from Edmund's POV; we see the lord turn toward him with the knife... And then, without any transition whatsoever, we're seeing Edmund's friend crawling toward his body. I had to reread this scene a couple of times to even understand what was going on.

Later, Elizabeth Woodville is pregnant and is hoping for a son. Not just do we not see the birth of the child; the first scene with him in it takes place not from Elizabeth's perspective, but from the POV of... some lady who has been tasked with watching over her. And the whole scene is the lady watching Elizabeth holding her son and basically mentally recapping everything that the reader has already been told about her (including how pretty her hair is). I don't get it. Seriously. What's the point of introducing a new POV character if all she's going to do is stand there and think about someone else?

Why she thought this would be an interesting way to write a novel is a mystery to me. I can't think of any logic behind the POV structure. Plus, it's boring. I'd much rather read about a battle than about, uh... people talking about a battle. Somebody never heard about that whole "Show, don't tell" thing.

3. Finally, the characters. I'm surprised to see that a lot of people who read this felt that the characters were portrayed in an insightful manner; I have to respectfully disagree. Penman spends a lot of pages analyzing her characters' motivations. My problem is that she does this in what felt to me like an overly clinical way. If a character has certain feelings about something, Penman makes a list of the exact reasons for this. It felt too... neat, I guess. Don't any of these people ever feel angry or sad or happy or whatever and yet have no idea why they felt that way? The people in this novel don't. There's nothing complex about them. Anne doesn't like her marriage to Edward of Lancaster because he's a jerk to her and because she loves Richard. George doesn't want Richard and Anne to marry because he's jealous of Richard and because he hopes to inherit Anne's mother's estate. Sure, those are all perfectly logical reasons. But when every single character has their motives tied up that neatly, they stop feeling like real human beings. Which is too bad given that, you know, these were real human beings.

It doesn't help that most characters have few identifying characteristics; I was constantly getting the minor characters mixed up. All the characters talk and think the same way. There are a lot of scenes of banter between various people, and at first I enjoyed them; the dialogue felt natural and the banter usually was funny. But it's strange when every single character has the same speaking style. Also, all the male characters banter. All of them. In exactly the same way. Aren't there any shy people? Or people who try to be funny but aren't? Or people who are too serious and get upset if someone makes a joke about something important? (The answer is apparently no.)

Look, the book wasn't horrible or anything. And it definitely has a good story (actually, several good stories) in it. But I did find it just plain dull, mostly because it was poorly structured. I think about 600 pages could have been cut out of it without actually hurting it any.
Tags: books, fuck you i'm a history nerd, snark

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