Stormbird (The Wars of the Roses #1)
by Conn Iggulden
From Goodreads: King Henry V – the great Lion of England – is long dead.
In 1437, after years of regency, the pious and gentle Henry VI, the Lamb, comes of age and accedes to the English throne. His poor health and frailty of mind render him a weakling king -Henry depends on his closest men, Spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to run his kingdom.
Yet there are those, such as the Plantagenet Richard, Duke of York, who believe England must be led by a strong king if she is to survive. With England’s territories in France under threat, and rumours of revolt at home, fears grow that Henry and his advisers will see the country slide into ruin. With a secret deal struck for Henry to marry a young French noblewoman, Margaret of Anjou, those fears become all too real.
As storm clouds gather over England, King Henry and his supporters find themselves besieged abroad and at home. Who, or what can save the kingdom before it is too late?
I’ve been searching for an historical fiction author whose books I can sink my metaphorical teeth into (as opposed to literally throwing them at the wall) for some time now, and have mostly come up short. Sharon Kay Penman started out great, but Falls the Shadow got so choppy I abandoned it just under two-hundred pages from the end, Helen Hollick’s The Forever Queen suffered from too many POVs crammed into the opening few chapters, and don’t even get me started on Philippa Gregory. There have been others through the years, but I don’t remember authors’ names or book titles, as they were largely forgettable tales. Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories are well-written and memorable (I read The Last Kingdom earlier this year), but I haven’t felt like I need to sit down and devour the series asap to find out what happens.
So I was starting to despair of ever finding an historical fiction author whose books didn’t annoy me in one way or another. Enter Conn Iggulden.
Who hasn’t heard of the Wars of the Roses, whether it’s because that’s a darned catchy name for a decades long series of civil wars, or because you’re a history nut who can name every little political player in the whole conflict? I tend toward the latter, because history is awesome.
Stormbird begins early in the reign of Henry VI, who ascended the throne in infancy after the death of his martially-minded father, Henry V. Sadly for England, the younger Henry is hardly like his father. Weak in both mind and body, Henry VI (just Henry from here on) prefers to spend his days in prayer, leaving the ruling of the kingdom to other men- specifically to his spymaster, Derihew Brewer, and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. The two men walk a delicate line, as the Duke of York leads a power faction, and it takes very little effort to sway Henry’s opinion one way or another. So to try to wrest all control away from the Yorkist faction, Derry and Suffolk put together a plan to marry Henry to Margaret of Anjou, a French princess who is related to King Charles of France.
There is little room for error, though, and once it is discovered that lands held by the English will go back to French rule upon Margaret’s marriage, chaos ensues. Thousands of English families are forced off their lands in France. Many rebel, and King Charles’s response is to raise an army that will sweep every Englishman away from French soil.
Meanwhile, back in England, the treaty that turned over those initial territories has proven to be politically disastrous for Suffolk, though Margaret herself has suffered little from xenophobia, and indeed cares greatly for her new country, and especially for her husband, Henry, whose mental and physical health are still in decline. Though she is only fifteen when she’s crowned Queen of England, she quickly learns how to navigate the intricacies of politics and proves to be a fierce defender of her husband’s crown.
Her strength- and the crown’s- is put to the test, though, when Jack Cade leads a peasant rebellion to London itself. Stoked by widespread anger from rampant injustice, poverty, and the loss of the French territories, Cade’s army threatens to shake England apart.
This is, of course, a simplification of the events of Stormbird, and if you’re a fan of Shakespeare, English history, or both, the plot will sound very familiar, as the dynastic struggle is the subject of this historical plays, Henry VI, pts. I and II (beautifully executed in the Hollow Crown series produced by the BBC). There are, of course, a lot of differences, one of the primary points regarding the relationship between Suffolk and Margaret of Anjou. Shakespeare casts Margaret as a villainous, scheming, adulterous woman seeking power for herself and eventually for her son. In the plays, she has an ongoing affair with Suffolk, who is also a villainous figure.
Iggulden’s depiction of Margaret, I think, is more true to history. While it’s true that Henry was not in France for the initial marriage ceremony, and that Suffolk stood in his place, that alone doesn’t mean that he and Margaret were lovers. It just means that Margaret’s wedding was a little weird, and not where she expected it to be. Iggulden portrays the relationship as friendly, as they traveled together back to England, and I would daresay that she would have been inclined to favor Suffolk, given that he was a close adviser to her husband-to-be.
Above all, Iggulden’s portrayals of all the characters, whether they’re royal or lowborn, treat them like human beings, with a range of thoughts, feelings, and desires. No one here is specifically written as a villain, except perhaps the Duke of York (though he generally comes off as frustrated as to what is happening to his country), or even as specifically good. Everyone has nuances and even moral people can do bad things.
The prose is strong, as well. At points where some authors are prone to sweeping descriptions or over-the-top sentimentality, Iggulden keeps it simple and direct with elegantly crafted writing that keeps you in the story without becoming distracting in itself. He also manages to give the book a sense of history without lecturing the reader (or having one character ramble on to another about things they should both already know). King Charles might mention the ‘disaster at Agincourt’, or an English Duke might look at a cardinal and think, ‘he’s also the one who sent Joan of Arc to the pyre’, but that’s it. If you don’t know what Agincourt or Joan of Arc are about, you’re going to have to look them up, because the characters aren’t going to tell you.
And I suppose that’s one of the strengths of Stormbird– the fact that, while the characters have a place in our history, they didn’t know what their eventual fates were going to be during their lifetimes. Maybe they knew they would have a place in great events, but they did not know the effects their actions would have on history. There is, I think, a propensity for authors and filmmakers to place a great emphasis on a character’s destiny, as though the fall of Richard III or the ascension of Elizabeth I were fated to happen, and nothing could stop them. But at the time, those outcomes were not guaranteed. A minor twist of fate could have had Richard III winning the Battle of Bosworth, not Henry Tudor, and Elizabeth I would never have existed. Iggulden does not fall for that, though, and Stormbird makes you feel like anything could happen, even if you already know what happened.
I will definitely be looking for the rest of the books in the Wars of the Roses series. If they’re anything like Stormbird, they’ll be fantastic reads, too.