THIS NOVEL BY THE author of The Lion in Winter continues the story of the Plantagenet monarchs. Here we witness the final years of King John, the youngest son of Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine, portrayed in the play and film as a bitterly contentious couple. John is known to history as the black-hearted tyrant from whom the English baronage wrested the Magna Carta. Goldman argues, however, that he wasn't a bad ruler, merely the victim of a bad press (his infamy seeming to date from a generation or two after his death and to have sprung from political motives.) John, apparently, was also afflicted by abominable luck --unlucky in war, unlucky in love, unable to inspire devotion like his charismatic predecessors; one almost things of Lyndon Johnson in the shadow of JFK.

We follow John's fortunes through the diary of one Giraldus Cambrensis, who really was a prominent writer of the period. In Goldman's frankly fiction retelling, Giraldus is commissioned by John to chronicle his exploits; no such chronicle ever existed, of course. This device is responsible for much of the book's interest, as well as for most of its weaknesses. Giraldus, in his late sixties as the story opens, has known the family for generations and can provide clear and succinct exposition. But since his is the only point of view, he must also witness extraordinarily intimate incidents for a venerable monk like himself. Giraldus writes in an odd combination of modern slang and self-consciously cadenced Olde English, and the lords and ladies of 13th-century Britain have some jarringly modern attitudes. Not totally convincing, but a pleasant enough way to absorb a good deal of history.