I'd read one of Penman's books before, and was impressed, but this one really blew me away.
For starters, I like historical fiction but don't usually read the sort that stars real historical figures. The characters in such books often lack personality and the plots are frequently dull. Happily, The Sunne in Splendour bears no resemblance to such books.
This is the story of the War of the Roses, spanning 33 years, from 1459 to 1492. It's also the story of Richard III, one of the most vilified kings in English history. When I picked up this book, I didn't understand the time period at all; I'd read some summaries but found them confusing. I "get it" now: in 931 pages, Penman shows us the battles, the politics, the intriguing, and the rise and fall of kings (plural), and without resorting to simplification, conveys it all so that it not only makes sense but is memorable. As for Richard III, I had no opinion about him before reading this book, but Penman has turned me into a partisan--which is, I'm sure, exactly what she intended.
So what makes Penman's work great isn't just her attention to historical detail (although I've never seen anyone question that) but her attention to psychological complexity. The characters are real people, with conflicting loyalties and moral ambiguities and all the rest. There aren't any evil villains (although there are characters you'll dislike) and there aren't really any heroes (even though Penman really likes Richard), but there are a lot of interesting and complicated people, who experience a lot of interesting and often tragic events. It makes for great drama.
In the end, I think maybe this book is so universally admired by readers--although it's Penman's first book, many consider it her best--because it's so passionate. She's passionate about her subject, and the characters are passionate about a variety of things, and it all adds up to a truly compelling read. There were a couple of minor annoyances, like the overuse of character names in dialogue, but I found them easy to overlook.
On a more mundane note, I want to commend Penman and/or her publisher for including a couple of things that greatly enhanced my reading experience: one, a map of Great Britain and northern France with all relevant locations marked; and two, a family tree as of 1459. That's right: for those of us who don't know who marries whom, or when major characters die, there are no spoilers in the family tree. Thank you for that.
What else can I say? Buy this book!