Review: Falls the Shadow

falls the shadow coverFalls the Shadow
Sharon Kay Penman
580 pages

From Goodreads: This is Simon de Montfort’s story—and the story of King Henry III, as weak and changeable as Montfort was brash and unbending. It is a saga of two opposing wills that would later clash in a storm of violence and betrayal, a story straight from the pages of history that brings the world of the thirteenth century completely, provocatively, and magnificently alive. Above all, this is a story of conflict and treachery, of human frailty and broken legends, a tale of pageantry and grandeur that is as unforgettable as it is real….


I was honestly excited to start this book. As I am an incurable Anglophile and history nut, historical fiction appeals to me at pretty much every level, and as I’ve heard nothing but good things about Sharon Kay Penman’s writing, I thought this would be a match made in book heaven.

It started out that way, with beautifully written character studies and the historical facts laid out clearly, without resorting to one person reciting facts to another (that the second person should have already known to begin with, making said person look entirely stupid. I’m looking at you, Philippa Gregory). The first half of the story progressed at a good pace, where historical facts and figures were explained in a clear fashion that didn’t leave me confused as to who did what and, even better, in an age where everyone seemed to have the same name, Penman gives them all nicknames based on their actual names so I wasn’t left wondering, ‘which of the five Eleanors are we talking about now?’.

So it was a great start and I raced through the first half. The problems started about halfway through. Because about twenty years had passed in the story, the orignal characters’ children became players in their own right and greatly increased the book’s cast, leaving less and less space for each one to assert his/her own point of view, as Penman switches from perspective to perspective, finding it necessary to cover virtually everyone at one point or another, pointing out their strengths or flaws and what they felt about siblings or spouses. This was, sadly, often to the detriment of the plot.

The story is based on real events, and I know that there was a lot going on during the thirteenth century, and that fans of historical fiction set in England will likely know what was going on, but the fact that Penman often glosses over major events is extremely annoying to me. For example, there is one point where Simon de Montfort spends a lot of time arranging a delicate and clever political maneuver, which Penman discusses in detail, only to undo it all in the course of a couple of sentences when another character arranges to have those knights meet with the king in another town altogether, forcing them into an awkward choice which, unable to choose between the factions, meant they all just stayed home. That’s how much effort was put into undoing a delicate plot point that Penman herself had spent many, many words putting together.

Ultimately, reading Falls the Shadow started to feel like I was watching a video that keeps skipping. You’re watching along, then it buffers and skips, and then proceeds to do so every ten seconds so that, while you can get a sense of the story, it feels disjointed and jars the senses.

I read 400 out of the 580 pages, but ultimately decided that the narrative was too scattered, and that I had lost too much interest to put up with it for the last 180 pages. I will certainly give Penman another try, but Falls the Shadow goes to the Did Not Finish list.

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