Friday, August 14, 2015

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (2012)

They are definitely a mixed bunch of saints and sinners, and Dan Jones mostly does them justice.  It's a long time period to cover in 500 pages; most of them could have warranted five hundred pages of their own.

Matilda and Stephen always make a good tale.  She's such a grand high sorceress of bungling, boldness and arrogance; that escape through the snow is always one of my favorite stories.  The two of them deserve a miniseries.

The ups and downs of the Henry II's - that story is familiar enough (The Lion in Winter).  But I thought Jones did a particularly good job here of flushing out Henry II's accomplishments, slicing through some of Richard the Lionheart's mythology to come to a more true place, and a really in depth look at John.  I especially liked how Jones cut the revisionists down when it comes to the reign of John.  There is a valid reason that no English king has ever been named John again:  HIS legendary wickedness is mostly rooted in fact.  He was personally more than a scoundrel; he was sort of a monster.  He locked up one of his enemy's wife and son and starved them to death; one tried to eat the other in the end.  That's a gruesome story, caused by a gruesome king.

The book became much more choppy after this, and not quite as good; it almost but not quite ran out of steam.  Jones pushes it along the tracks, but it's never quite as interesting again after Henry II and his brood.  Henry III is just an incompetent dullard as a king, although if you are interested in how the Magna Carta was really put into action, and the seeds of modern British (and American) democracy, then this is the place it really starts (that's not as interesting to me, so that's probably why I found this chapter dull).  I knew next to nothing about Edward I, and I still don't remember a whole lot (he put up the Charing Cross to his wife, though, I remember that).

Edward II was a more interesting chapter again, and the story once again picks up.  He's a fascinating figure, as his she wolf of a queen.  The whole story of his rise and fall, and then the rise of Edward III  was quite interesting.  The actual chapters on Edward III were sort of mixed; there is so much drama and excitement there, but occasionally the train couldn't get up the hill and Jones had to struggle to get it there.  Edward III's entire huge brood are actually as interesting as Henry II's, and I'm surprised there aren't more fictionalized accounts of that enormous and interesting family.  As a family saga, I think it would make a great potboiler (Joan of Kent's story alone, his daughter-in-law, is fascinating).  It's like a Sharon Penman sprawling epic waiting to happen, if only they wrote sprawling historical epics.  Edward Rutherfurd, get thee to work.

Richard II's bit at the end felt similarly to Edward III's - a very, very interesting character, but Jones had trouble keeping the train on the tracks.

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a big book, but it could have been bigger. It's a long time period with a collection of characters (saints and sinners) that's wide and varied.  There are folks in this book who could have warranted a 500 page biography all their own.  The early Plantagenet chapters are the best; Matilda and Stephen's war for the throne is a fascinating story, particularly Matilda's combination of bungling, boldness and arrogance, which Jones captures well.  We know the gloss of Henry II's story, but Jones again does a good job of adding substance to the lives of Henry and Richard.  John he paints with the black brush that he deserves (revisionists aside); he definitely would feel right at home in (and win at)  Game of Thrones.  The book enters more hilly terrain after that, and Jones's writing does its best to keep the train on track; but occasionally it loses steam.  The chapters on Henry III and Edward I aren't quite as thrilling.  Edward II really picks up again - anything about him and his she wolf queen is fascinating.  The Edward III chapters were mixed, as was those about  his petulancy, Richard II.  Overall, a strong book and interesting, with occasional lurches off the track.

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