A quote from Carlos Ruiz Zafón: "I think you have to be careful with research in fiction. I believe the best way to use it is to learn a lot yourself about what you're going to write, and then don't really use more than 1% of all the research you've done, at least visibly. ... the effective way to use research in fiction is to internalize it and embed its essence in the narrative fabric of the tale. Information only works in fiction when it plays a dramatic role. Often you read novels in which the author includes much of the research he's done... It could work in a journalistic context or in a nonfiction book, but in literature you need to find a way to incorporate it in the texture, the aesthetics, and the fabric of the world you're building for the reader from a purely narrative point, never as window dressing or as a display of erudition."
Sharon Kay Penman (and her fans) would doubtless disagree with everything Zafón says.
By her own admission, she loves adding "random details straight from the pages of [historical] chronicles" and she says "I tend to be obsessive-compulsive about research!"
The book is indeed excellently researched - but it feels more like reading a history text about Richard the Lionheart than a novel. It relates historic events in detail, even quoting from historical sources within the text. It frequently lists names of people who were present at certain occasions, for no dramatic reason, just because it's known, and one might find it interesting. It IS interesting. It's just not exciting.
I read all near-600 pages of this book, and didn't want to stop part-way through - but neither did I have any trouble putting the book down and doing something else for a while, at any point. I read a bunch of other books before getting around to finishing it.
It will definitely educate you on the circumstances surrounding the Third Crusade, and details of twelfth-century history. But the narrative lacks dramatic tension, even when the events being described are chock-full of drama! The characters didn't really come to life for me, as people. I feel that this is because Penman makes a conscious decision not to 'make up' too much stuff. But it also means that this isn't the sort of book I really prefer.
I got the book as part of the First Reads giveaway. I entered because I'd heard a lot of good things about Penman's books, and even actually own two of them that I'd been 'getting-around-to' reading. I'm sure there are many people out there who love her style of writing, but it's just not the style I most prefer.