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Falls the Shadow

by Sharon Kay Penman
580 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Lady Meriwen

Exciting novel of medieval Britain with a considerable amount of violence and sexual content.

Plot

This is the story of Simon de Montfort, noble lord and champion of the barons' rights in England. But it is also the story of many lives whose paths cross his: Henry III, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, Eleanor of Pembroke. It is a drama of passionate love, white-hot patriotism, and courage against all odds. Swords meet with the clash of wills and hearts beat with the promise of victory as history unfolds in glory and pain.

Morality

In all historical accuracy, double-crossing is highly prevalent in this story. But whenever it happens it’s shown as a despicable thing, and the characters we are supposed to admire do not engage in it. One woman lies to her brother so that she can marry her beloved; she feels compunctions about it later. An interesting aspect of the plot is the treatment of the Jews in England: by and large they’re treated as scapegoats and enemies of God. This is probably accurate to the times, especially considering the attitude fostered by the Crusades; what may not be so accurate but certainly moral is the respect Simon de Montfort shows them.

Spiritual Content

For a good part of the book there isn’t much. Whenever God or Christianity are mentioned (outside of profanity, that is) they’re treated with respect. None of the characters are strong Christians except for Simon himself. He never makes professions of Christianity at first — and if he had, they could have easily been called into question — but as he matures, so does his faith. By the end he’s become an admirable man of God while remaining a stalwart soldier.

Violence

Both the Barons’ War and the Welsh Wars form the historical backdrop, so much violence is to be expected — and much violence there is. The carnage of battle is graphically described, as is the cruelty of executions in those days. The most disturbing incident of violence was when one character’s dead body was mutilated and and treated in various humiliating ways — a historical fact, but nonetheless stomach-churning.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine and ale are drunk throughout. On occasion characters are drunk, but it's always mentioned in passing.

Sexual Content

Much. None of the sex scenes are explicit, but they are undeniably steamy — enough that I felt uncomfortable reading them. Most of the sexual content is in the context of marriage; prostitutes are prevalent in the story, though, and it seems to be taken for granted that none of the men are virgins. There is one childbirth scene and a good deal of flirting, which is also taken for granted. One character’s adultery outside of a loveless marriage is depicted as a sin, but an excusable one.

With all that, Simon and his wife have a strong and passionate marriage, which is shown as highly admirable throughout. Another marriage (between two more minor characters) is likewise strong and held in high esteem.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

There is a great deal of swearing, particularly among the soldiers but also among ladies and even children. Most of the oaths are old-fashioned and consist of taking God’s name in vain; many a “damn” and “whoreson” are dropped, as well. Simon and Nell bandy some sexual jokes (in the context of their marriage), and at least one character mentions “taking a piss”.

Conclusion

Because I love both drama and history, I enjoyed this book. The various characters are easy to relate to without losing their aura of medievalism, the descriptions are sparse but still manage to convey the time period vividly, and minor historical events all fall into place within the bigger picture that I was already familiar with.

That said, however, the book would have been much better without the sexual scenes. Those between married couples didn’t bother me as much as the gratuitous lovemaking shown outside of marriage, particularly when there was no historical basis for the fact that certain of the main characters had mistresses at all. Also, some of the violent description seemed to me unnecessary, more for thrill factor than anything else.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 2
Written for Age: adult

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