Heat Factor: Much is implied, little is on the page
Character Chemistry: Falling at first conversation
Plot: Romeo & Juliet, Medieval Kings Edition
Overall: Somehow I couldn’t put this book down, even though it’s not presented in a particularly suspenseful way
I cut my romance eyeteeth on the romantic storylines of historical fiction when I was younger, and when I saw that Solomon’s Crown is a romance between Philip the Godgiven of France and Richard the Lionheart, how could I possibly not read it? I couldn’t not read it. What you should know before reading it yourself, however, is that it’s like history fanfic: a sweeping romance that has a happy ending that 1000% did not happen in real life. So if you’re worried that this is not actually a romance, I can assure you that it is; but if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, you probably need to keep moving.
If you are not a history buff, here’s the TL;DR: Medieval Europe was a decentralized system of feudal alliances, with borders and states shifting between kingdoms as treaties were signed and battles were won. Because Billy the Conq came from Normandy, on the northern coast of now-France, there was a great deal of finagling control of duchies on the north and west coasts of now-France between the French and English crowns, especially after Eleanor of Aquitaine left Louis VII and married Henry II. Henry II of England had four adult sons, two of whom outlived him and became kings of England in their own right: Richard the Lionheart (Richard I) and John Lackland. If you’ve seen Robin Hood, you know these guys.
Philip Dieudonne was the only son of Louis VII of France. Louis was a hot mess and did not handle the dissolution of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine well; he ended up ceding significant quantities of French land to Henry II in various marriage alliances and treaties. I hope it is becoming clear that France and England have a rivalry about which crown can claim which duchies as vassals, and that rivalry extends well before and after the reigns of Philip II and Richard I and embroils Philip and Richard in its clutches. Philip II was significantly less of a hot mess than his father and spent most of his reign trying to build France up again.
These guys fought a lot. But also, politics were complicated, so it’s not like they never spent time together, either.
Okay. So. Romance between a king of France and a future king of England. How’s that gonna work?
In the 20th century, historians began to discuss the idea that a sexual relationship existed between Richard and Philip on account of a few things that are spectacularly inconclusive, namely: Richard’s lack of relationships and children (he had one wife and one illegitimate child), public confessions that have been interpreted to be for the sin of sodomy, and records of bed-sharing with Philip. There are many explanations for these things, but one could be that they did have a sexual/romantic relationship, so Siegel’s imagination took hold, and now we have this book.
I appreciate that Siegel has both a historical note and an author’s note bookending the story itself, because if you look at the actual historical record, it’s impossible to imagine a HEA for these two men. In the historical note at the beginning of the book, Siegel acknowledges that she’s departed so much from the historical record that “Philip and Richard have been made entirely distinct from their historical counterparts; they aren’t intended to reflect the real-life Philip and Richard in any meaningful way, except their political positions and family ties.” That said, she holds to the truth enough that Philip is married when he meets Richard; we’ve got some messy medieval polyamory going on, with Isabela and Philip married so young that they end up being best friends rather than lovers (except for that pesky begetting an heir situation). We’ve also got the entirety of the tension of the second half of the narrative hinging on the political conflict and intrigues between these two kingdoms. Philip must do what’s best for France, even if that means betraying Richard.
I found it interesting that Siegel presented Richard as probably bisexual and Philip as probably gay given that Philip is the one who (IRL) married multiple times and had many children, but in terms of the story being told, it almost must be this way or Philip never would have unbent enough to allow himself to pursue Richard. The beginning of the book is a slow burn as we are first introduced to the characters and the political situation, and then as we see Philip trying to control himself while Richard tries not to take things farther than Philip wants. The whole will-they-won’t-they followed by a solid can-we-make-it-work is angst central.
When all is said and done, I probably couldn’t put the book down because I couldn’t conceive of how this story could end happily. Richard’s father and brothers stir up trouble constantly, and both Richard and Philip are responsible for administering their lands, so they can’t simply move in together and unobtrusively live happily ever after. It would be much simpler to create a romance for two medieval men who don’t have such significant responsibilities and visibility, but who wants simple when we could have drama and sweeping romance that overcomes impossible obstacles?
If you’re curious about this history, and you like podcasts, I have long enjoyed listening to The History of England Podcast by David Crowther. Here’s the episode on Richard I.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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