Sharon Kay Penman,
Time & Chance
(Penguin Putnam, 2002)

Sharon Kay Penman does not disappoint her readers with Time & Chance, the sequel to the equally weighty When Christ & His Saints Slept. She exhibits her customary flair for blending documented historical facts with the fascinating hearsay of fiction. This book could stand on its own as an account of the years of 1156 to 1171, encompassing the early half of the reign of Henry II, named Plantagenet. It focuses on his gradual estrangement both from his clever, beautiful queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his friend, Thomas Becket. Having read the first book, however, one is instantly at ease with the protagonists in Time & Chance and ready to plunge back into 12th-century politics, plots and passion.

The book spans Henry's youthful years as King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine -- lord over more land since the Emperor Charlemagne. His passionate and willful wife bears him eight children during these fifteen years, and he has far-reaching dynastic plans for his sons and daughters to enable him to maintain his influence over such a diverse and sprawling realm. He also seeks to secure an accord with the Church, a significant presence in those days whether one was a commoner or a king, by placing his trusted and worldly friend Thomas Becket in the most powerful position of religious authority in England. So great is Henry's faith in his friend, it matters not that Thomas simultaneously holds the most powerful political position, and also fosters Prince Hal. While appreciating Thomas's urbane and skillful support for her husband and his realm in his office as chancellor, Eleanor voices grave doubts as to the wisdom of promoting Thomas to Archbishop of Canterbury, but Henry brushes off her qualms and proceeds with his customary blithe confidence and arrogance.

Sharon Penman's true gift is to recount the usually dry and dusty facts of history with a palatable and tasty concoction of truth, half-truth and pure fiction. She carries the reader along at a headlong gallop through mediaeval kingdoms, courts and castles; the words and actions she gives to her characters are so realistic the reader forgets the tale and believes they are privy to the secrets of kings, whether they converse with knights or concubines. Immersed in the world she defines and creates, the reader is unaware of the passage of real time, and no word is wasted, no scene is superfluous to her tale.

The title is taken from Ecclesiastes, and is one of the more apt quotations I have seen used by an author, as it is made clear that despite his worldly power and wealth, King Harry is subject to human failings which shape his destiny along with Time & Chance. Over the passage of time, the bonds of mutual trust and understanding between Henry and Thomas are frayed and ruptured beyond repair. By mischance, the ties of love and shared aspirations are also damaged irretrievably between Eleanor and Henry. The reader is seduced by Penman's skillful character interpretation, which sheds an intimate light on these figures from our past. Thomas Becket is inevitably doomed, just as history records, and although this shadow hangs over the story, the path of his destruction is nevertheless brightly lit by the decisions and morals of a complex man, and the events that pave his way are presented with compassion and humanity.

I appreciate the author's note at the end of the book, where interested readers may acquaint themselves with the ungarnished historical facts and discover what areas were subjected to the author's artistic licence. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book for anyone with even a modicum of interest in the period, and for those who are well acquainted with Penman's accomplished insights, this book definitely lives up to the keen anticipation honed by the delay in publication. Historical fiction is a delicate balancing act, which Sharon Kay Penman achieves time and again with consummate ease. Fortunately for those caught up in this tale and time, she promises a sequel to Time & Chance -- I am already impatient for her to complete the trilogy!

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

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