The Reckoning is a solid read and a better book than Falls the Shadow, so I give it four stars despite some reservations.
This last installment of Penman's Welsh trilogy covers the years 1271-1283, as Edward I wages war on Wales in his determination to bring the entire island under English rule. Llewelyn ap Gruffyth, grandson of Llewelyn Fawr, is Prince of Wales and, in the same vein as his grandfather, is determined that Wales remain independent and united. Other Welsh lords, most notably Llewelyn's brother Davydd, resent his leadership and make unreliable allies at best. This sets the stage for a series of high-stakes wars.
As always with Penman, I learned a fair bit of history from this book. Additionally, it is much better-plotted and more cohesive than Falls the Shadow. It helps that this one only spans 13 years, making it much easier for the reader to stay in touch with the characters' lives. As the book rushes toward its dramatic conclusion, the plot is focused and well-paced. It also helps that these characters had eventful lives; there's even a pirate attack, which is very well-done.
But while Penman is a much better character writer than your average historical novelist, this book is not the best example of her talents (or I've simply read too many of them). Llewelyn is a Standard Penman Hero and almost indistinguishable from his grandfather: he's totally devoted to his cause, he's brave, he's a loving husband; if he has a flaw it's that he's a bit self-righteous. Ellen has her moments (as do the other de Montforts, for certes), but she's quite similar to previous heroines, and while the build-up to her eventual meeting with Llewelyn is excellent, their actual relationship seems like a mishmash of relationships in previous Penman books.
Meanwhile, several supporting characters, while sympathetic and with interesting stories to tell, are primarily characterized by their loyalty to the principals, making them very similar to each other and to other Penman supporting characters. And Edward I makes a good villain, but he's not the complex character study that Kings John and Henry III were; he's mostly just a villain, brave but power-hungry, determined to believe himself a good guy even if it requires self-delusion. Edmund, his supportive younger brother, seemed a carbon copy of Richard, King John's supportive illegitimate son. None of these characters are flat by any means, but they're not quite as complex as previous protagonists, and share too many traits with those same previous protagonists to be particularly memorable. Davydd stands out as perhaps the most complex of the bunch, and his troubled relationship with Llewelyn is an apt focal point for this story.
The writing itself is good, aside from Penman's excessive fondness for the comma splice. And while her dialogue--always competent--improved as of Falls the Shadow when she stopped overusing auxiliary verbs in an effort to make it sound more archaic, I do find the sheer amount of banter included in this book odd, given that none of it is remotely humorous on the page. To be fair, the jokes are apparently intended to illuminate the characters' relationships and show that they have a sense of humor even under pressure, not to make readers chuckle; still, it's a bit overdone.
Finally, while we do see something of the characters' everyday lives, I feel a bit shortchanged when it comes to immersion in the culture in which the characters lived. This may be unfair to Penman--particularly as I just finished reading Anya Seton's Katherine, where the author takes a far more anthropological interest in 14th century England--but while this book is without a doubt solid on its historical information and psychological truths, its picture of 13th century life is sketchy. England doesn't feel different from Wales or France, aside from a few references to the terrain; Penman's 13th century is much like her rendering of the 12th or the 15th. Italy has its own character, but the rest of the world depicted here has the same generic backdrop of castles and abbeys, servants and prostitutes. Maybe the life of the nobility really was the same everywhere; still, to me at least, the scene-setting felt rather perfunctory.
I recommend this book to those who enjoyed the first two; it could also be read independently, as Penman does a good job of getting the readers up to speed at the beginning, but one who started here would miss the background and the protagonists' young lives. The book does a solid job of finishing the trilogy; the end is sad, but well-done. An enjoyable reading experience, if not without flaws.