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Time and Chance
Sharon Kay Penman
Putnam, 515 pages

Time and Chance
Sharon Kay Penman
While a student and then a tax lawyer, Sharon Kay Penman worked on a novel about the life of Richard III. After finishing it, her only copy was stolen from her car in a busy parking lot. She rewrote the entire novel that would become The Sunne in Splendour, published in 1982. She then quit her job to write full-time. Her novel, The Queen's Man, was a finalist for an Edgar Award. She lives in New Jersey.

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A review by Alma A. Hromic

I was left breathless when I first picked up a Sharon Kay Penman book -- the magical The Sunne in Splendour, with its uncanny knack for blending real history and real people with wholly invented characters without whom it became difficult to imagine the true events ever having taken place. Penman followed that up with three more outstanding books -- the loose Welsh "trilogy", dealing with the lives of Llewellyn the Great and his grandson and namesake who was the last Welsh Prince of Wales. Penman's ability to bring history to life was astonishing; I had never read another author who did it better. If ever some kid whined that history was stiff and boring, these were the books to refute that claim -- never was history more alive than under Sharon Penman's pen.

Her foray into the conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Maude over the English throne, in the novel When Christ and his Saints Slept, started another series for Penman, one whose titles were based on Biblical quotations; from this rich source comes the title of her newest, Time and Chance (the quote, of course, is from the eminently quotable Ecclesiastes:

"I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all"
- Ecclesiastes 9:11).
The new book, a long time coming, deals with one of the most remarkable periods of medieval history. If the fiery relationship of Henry Plantagenet and his extraordinary Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was not enough, the book essentially re-tells one of the best known and most exciting historical stories ever recorded -- the "turbulent priest" Thomas Beckett and the Murder in the Cathedral.

The story is so well known, in fact, that Penman mentions in her afterword that she was in the enviable position of being able to allow a lot of her characters to "speak for themselves, in their own words," since there is so much material available on the era and on these particular events. But something that ought to have been a real strength somehow turns around and wounds the book deeply. There is little trace here of Penman's ability of bringing historical characters, and through them their era, alive in the mind of the reader. Instead of the sense of watching real events unfold before a reader's eyes, what emerges is something akin to the Bayeux tapestry -- wonderfully crafted, to be sure, exquisite to behold, but dead and stiff nonetheless, only a representation of the reality on which it was based.

This is not to say that Time and Chance is a bad book, or that it is badly written -- like everything Penman writes, this is masterfully crafted, with a fine sense of period and the people who inhabit it. However, when it comes to Henry and Eleanor, and Thomas Beckett, this is not enough. Too much else has been said and written on the subject of Beckett's murder, and a character like Eleanor of Aquitaine is too larger-than-life for any book dealing with these to be simply good enough. To stand out, it has to be extraordinary. Despite her considerable and well-documented gifts, Penman has not written that extraordinary book. It feels as though the author was tired (she does say that the reason the book was such a long time coming was because of an extended illness) or -- as unlikely as that might sound -- uninspired by her subject matter. What emerges is a decent historical novel, but not a Penman Special Event. This isn't enough to stop me from keeping an eye out for any new Sharon Penman book that hits the bookstores -- but Time and Chance, despite its overwhelming promise and its setting in one of the most dramatic periods of European medieval history, was a disappointment.

Copyright © 2002 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her latest fantasy work, a two-volume series entitled Changer of Days, was published by HarperCollins.

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