Sharon Kay Penman,
Dragon's Lair, A Medieval Mystery
(G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2003)

If you are drawn in, as I was, by the unusual cover of Sharon Kay Penman's newest mystery, Dragon's Lair, be assured that there is a good read in store for you. Find your Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and a good atlas, as I did, and enter the world of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in the year of Richard the Lionhearted's imprisonment in a royal dungeon in Germany. I needed first to locate Chester, an outpost on the border between England and Wales. Justin de Quincy, "the Queen's Man," is sent by her to Chester because his father, the Bishop of Chester, is her ally. Chester is only a stop along the way for the young agent.

Why is the queen sending de Quincy to Wales? It is, in the year of 1193, the back of beyond, a separate entity from England proper, a place with internal struggles among princes. The reasons are the usual reasons when princes are in conflict. The queen's demand for gold to pay the ransom for her son's release is satisfied by the shipment of wool from a Cistercian abbey, but this valuable payment is hijacked and the drovers hauling the wagons are murdered. It is Justin's duty to investigate the murders and recover the cargo of woolsacks, which are worth their weight in gold. The whole case opens up a can of worms.

Penman writes with verve and insight, drawing her characters from many levels of society. The queen is a shadowy figure in the plot, but her anguish is clear as she worries about Richard and fears the ambitions of his younger brother, John. It is evident that she trusts Justin completely. In fact, you will go far to find a hero like Justin de Quincy. As usual, it is the characters that count most.

Read this vivid, action-filled book and live for a time in Wales as it might have been centuries ago. Admire the legal system and the absence of a class structure. Meet Llewelyn. a Welsh prince, who appears in Penman's historical novel, Here Be Dragons, as a central character. As for me, a new door is open to me as a reader. Beyond the doorsill lies Wales to be experienced in the other novels by Penman. I know it will be rewarding.

- Rambles
written by Jean Marchand
published 26 June 2004

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