Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel (1992)

A common habit among fiction readers is, when impressed by one novel, to seek out others by the same author. That process, after greatly enjoying Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, led to A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel's earlier novel of the French Revolution. 

Seeking out earlier work can be a risky proposition; authors often need several tries before finding their mature voices. Such was not the case, however, with this novel. Mantel had already penned eight previous novels, and her character-focused style was already in full flower.

The French Revolution is a perfect subject for Mantel, who loves to develop characters. Indeed, there are so many varied and interesting characters that the reader can be overwhelmed. The extensive Cast Of Characters section at the end is very helpful in that regard. Also confusing is the way characters changed roles as the revolution progressed. One year's hero often became the next year's traitor and guillotine victim. Again, the Cast of Characters helps by noting these changing circumstances. Following that is a short list of characters who survived past 1794.

There was a point, about a quarter of the way in, when it seemed that Mantel's fictionalized French characters bordered on British caricature. I was reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the questing knights approach an unknown castle, to find it occupied by unknown defenders. Using their best parodies of French-accented English, the defenders challenge the approaching party. Puzzled, King Arthur asks "What are you, then?" To which the reply is "I'm French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?"

Anyway, that impression soon passed as the characters' non-Anglo thinking and behavior settled into the rhythm of the story. And what a story it is! The bloody lunacy of the French Revolution was, in a way, a foreshadowing of the madness to come in the 20th century.

Note: this review is based on the Kindle version, which is nicely done and a bargain at $4.95.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes, especially the people. For starters, I sought out a biography (My Lady Scandalous, by Jo Manning) of the mysterious courtesan Grace Elliott, purported to be a British spy. The bio shed no light on the truth of that claim, but provided some interesting social history background. Many of the other characters merit similar exploration.

Mantel herself, in her Author's Note (a much-appreciated feature, as always), apologizes for the brevity of space devoted to Dr. Marat, who (she says) deserves his own novel (here's hoping that happens).

Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, although the focus is necessarily very narrow, and events outside of Paris get mentioned only in passing, if at all. For example, the revolutionary/reactionary wars between France and its neighbors are simply topics discussed in Paris, usually less interesting to the principal characters than the day's debates in the Committees.

Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, it seems so - as far as possible. The author notes the uncertainty surrounding those times, especially with regards to characters never prominent before the Revolution. Mantel's research is typically very thorough. and this novel is no exception.

Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes - as far as possible. Even less is known about the historical characters than about the events. The author takes responsibility for her portrayals, made even more challenging by the lack of major fictional characters. Among historical novelists, I rate Hilary Mantel #1 in character development, and her Danton, Camille, Robespierre and many others (including many fascinating women) really come alive. If the real people weren't much like Mantel's characters, they should have been.

Update: this novel inspired me to re-read the grandfather of all French Revolution novels - Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Mantel pays homage to Dickens by including in her novel two of his famous fictional characters - Monsieur Defarge the wine-shop keeper, and his wife who non-stop knits into her never-finished work the names of those she judges worthy of death.

Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
There's so little of this that the question may not have much relevance. The one area where plausibility usually suffers in historical character portrayals is motivation. We know at least some of what they did, but very little of the why. Mantel always does a commendable job with characters, making them as complex, contradictory, and maddening as real people.

Score = 5

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Master of Monterey, by Lawrence Coates (2003)

Not long ago, I was lamenting to a fellow local history buff the paucity of factually-accurate early-California historical novels. Good writing set in the 20th-century isn't hard to find (e.g. the ninety-year-old Oil!, by Upton Sinclair is still relevant today). However, novels set in the pre-U.S. period have tended toward overly romantic views of Spanish California.

"Have you read The Master of Monterey?", my acquaintance asked. Admitting that I had never heard of the 2003 novel by Lawrence Coates, I was happy to find it at my local public library, and am now happy to have read it. What fun!

The postmodern historical fiction of American writers including John Barth and Thomas Pynchon breathed new life and literary quality into the genre, and Coates' novel falls squarely into that tradition. One of the more absurd episodes in California history provides a perfect setting for an irreverent and humorous tale of frustrated idealism, oddball personalities and competing agendas.

In 1842 Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones sailed into Monterey, capital of Mexican Alta California. Mistakenly believing the United States and Mexico to be at war, Jones captured the defenseless port and ran up the stars and stripes. One day later, another U.S. ship arrived with dispatches proving that no state of war existed. Jones quietly took the flag back down and departed. Monterey returned to its somnambulant state for another four years, until it was once again seized without a struggle in the opening days of the Mexican-American War. Jones' navy career continued after this embarrassing fiasco, but he was never again trusted with a position of such responsibility.

Coates signals early-on his intention to treat the historical events as merely a jumping-off point into larger themes. The name of Jones' flagship is changed from United States to National Intention. A fictionalized unrequited love affair allows Jones to project a garbled idealism onto his mission, and so on. A postmodern approach also dictates healthy doses of absurdist humor, and Coates does not disappoint.

A Barthian touch is the idea that historical narrative not only influences later readers' understanding of events but, if written concurrently, may actually direct the course of those events. Coates creates two characters who record this historical episode, with very different ideas about its story line. The two gradually and independently conceive the notion that their writing has the power to influence the future course of events.

One writer is a teenage aspiring poet named William Waxdeck (with a wink, Coates introduces Waxdeck as "a fifteen-year-old who could trace his ancestry to the Pyncheons of Salem, Massachusetts") who Jones orders "to compose an epic poem in heroic couplets on the theme of a ship carrying out the intentions of a great nation to spread freedom to the very logical ends of the continent". Waxdeck, whose classical education taught him how these stories are supposed to go, proceeds at first with enthusiasm. As the adventure unfolds, however, he becomes less and less sure where it should end up.

The other writer is Jones' ex-slave steward Hannibal who, while creating fair copies of the chronically-seasick poet's scribbled pages, sees and doesn't like where this story is heading. Hannibal begins to insert subversive ideas into Waxdeck's narrative, while also starting his own prose narrative of a quest to find in California a haven of freedom and equality. Neither narrative matches up with reality, of course, and other characters attempt to impose their own visions on the course of events.

Jones himself is filled with self-doubts, growing increasingly conflicted and confused about his direction and purpose. He begins to depend on each daily dose of poetry for guidance in setting the day's agenda, and becomes ever more confused as the two narrators and others all compete to be masters of their own fates - perhaps even Master of Monterey.  

The standard five criteria don't really yield an accurate evaluation of this very enjoyable novel, but for what it's worth:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Although the main events were familiar, this retelling brought up new questions and avenues to be researched.
Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, just barely. History is used mainly as metaphor, and evidentiary detail is lacking. Still, there are events in the novel that actually happened, and I found no conflicts with verifiable history. The geography and topology of old Monterey are accurate.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes and No. Coates lets readers know early on that the novel's purpose is not to tell "what really happened". Indeed, one of the tenets of postmodern historical fiction is that attempts to present fiction as "elaborated" and/or "revealed" truth are inherently dishonest. Rather than aiming to induce in readers a "willing suspension of disbelief", Coates leaves the documented history in its natural sketchy state and uses it only to serve broader novelistic aims.

A couple of odd, unnecessary and seemingly incorrect California place names are included. At one point, a group of locals ride off into the "San Gabriel Mountains". At another point, reference is made to an Ohlone rancheria called "Temecula". Neither of those real places is anywhere near Monterey.
Score = 2
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No. Again, Coates is not trying for accurate characterization. A number of historical characters appear in the novel, but in highly fictionalized forms intended to convey some philosophical point of view, or to illustrate some particular aspect of the social realities existing in that time and place.

The reader may recognize other historical names in addition to Jones, but in heavy disguise. The fictional "Don Ignacio Castro" represents the California landed gentry - the rancheros, and the Castro family was indeed prominent in the Monterey area. The shadowy character of "Mr Lurkin" is an even-more fictionalized version of Thomas O. Larkin, an American merchant who, shortly after the events of 1842, was appointed the first and only U.S. consul to Alta California.
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
No. Plausibility is not one of the goals in postmodern historical fiction, so this criterion has limited relevance to an evaluation of this enjoyable novel. The follies and foibles of the very-human characters were, however, all too plausible.
Score = 3

P.S. After complaining about the dearth of local history novels, I must give a shout-out to S. L. Hawke, whose historical mystery Ghosts in the Gulch (2014) is set in 1860s Santa Cruz County.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1926)

The history of California is a particular interest of mine, and the shortage of good historical novels set in my native state is distressing. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find this 1926 Upton Sinclair novel about early petroleum industry history.

Nearly everyone of a certain age read The Jungle during high school in California, but Sinclair's other novels are less well known. I suspect that Oil! was still a bit too left-ish for 1960s school curriculum, but well worth reading today. In fact, the topical relevance of a 100-year-old novel about near-contemporary events of that time is startling.

Of course, the history recounted in Oil! was very recent history in 1926. The tale begins early in the second decade of the 20th century, and ends with the 1924 presidential election that gave us Calvin Coolidge. The stock market crash, Great Depression and World War II were still in the future, although Sinclair's novel predicted with deadly accuracy how events following WWI would lead inevitably to another world war.

The fictional protagonist of Oil! is J. Arnold Ross, Jr., about 10 years old when we first meet him, and forever known to all by the strange-to-modern-ears nickname "Bunny". J. Arnold Ross senior is an oil man, one of a new breed who arose from hardscrabble beginnings to become titans in the new petroleum industry.

Bunny is like the stock cartoon character who has an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each giving contradictory advice. Except that, in Bunny's case, it's not so easy to tell which is angel and which is devil. Bunny grows up idolizing his father, a larger-than-life, take-charge entrepreneur who seems capable of surmounting any obstacle and overcoming any objection in pursuit of his business ambitions. As both get older, of course, Bunny learns that real life isn't black-and-white, and a boy's uncritical admiration for his father is gradually tempered by a man's understanding of the wider world.

The other angel/devil in Bunny's life is his unlikely friend Paul, rebelling against a poor rural upbringing to become a self-educated labor organizer; eventually a communist and defender of the Bolshevik revolution. Remember again that, in 1926, the dream of a "workers' paradise" in Russia was still very much alive - before the rise of Stalin.

Bunny's inner struggle between loyalty to his father and Paul's appeal to his youthful idealism create much of the dramatic tension in the novel. It also gave Sinclair plenty of opportunity to "compare and contrast" worker solidarity with unfettered capitalism. Another of Bunny's "radical" friends is the more moderate socialist Rachel, who shows him a middle way (think Bernie Sanders).

The few named historical characters are not part of the story except as a frame of reference. For instance, presidents Harding and Coolidge are named but have no actual scenes in the drama, while the oil tycoons who conspired in the Teapot Dome scandal are central characters and pseudonymous.

Many of the fictional characters, however, are very thinly disguised versions of historical counterparts. In that regard, Sinclair's historical fiction style was somewhat different from most novels today. Modern authors would probably be advised by their publishers to be careful of libel lawsuits when writing about still-living people and events.

The historical places of the southern California oil boom also get fictional names, for less apparent reasons. "Beach City" is obviously Long Beach, and "Angel City" is even more obviously Los Angeles.

There's also a lot of interesting social history in Bunny's coming-of-age story. During this period, straight-laced Victorian mores gave way to more independent and pleasure-centered ("decadent") upper class youth, WWI disillusionment, and the "lost generation" of the Roaring Twenties.

One other note: The 2007 feature film There Will Be Blood purported to be based on Oil!. Although it borrows some bits from the novel, however, it's an entirely different story.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Many historical parts of this story were unfamiliar to me. As a native Californian, I know where the oil fields are, but not much about how they got there. Also, Sinclair's account of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (including Paul's first-hand story) supporting the "Whites" in Russia after the 1917 revolution has inspired me to read more about that turbulent period. The crazy story of the Czech Legion would make a great novel on its own.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Major events of the time are followed closely and accurately. Readers' main disagreements will be with Sinclair's interpretations of those events.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Same as above. Take a point off for the subjective nature of "accurate".
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Hard to say, as always, but probably as much as in any historical fiction. Fictional naming of characters based on historical persons gives an author more-than-usually-wide latitude for embellishment. However, Sinclair's accounts of events and the people involved in them seem accurate and, as Jesus said, "By their deeds shall you know them".
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Mostly. The only part that Sinclair failed to explain to my satisfaction was Bunny's early and strong attraction to Paul. Not many 10-year-olds would feel such immediate affinity with another boy from a totally different economic and social world. Seen as a plot device to introduce Bunny's internal moral struggles, however, Paul makes perfect sense.
Score = 4 

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Mongoliad, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear et al (2012-2014)

Waiting to finish all five books in the Mongoliad series led to a longer-than-usual break between posts, but was a wise decision. Anytime Neal Stephenson is involved, it's best to wait and see how things tie together in the end. There are bound to be myriad unexpected plot twists and turns, and Mongoliad did not disappoint. The Mongoliad Cycle is just one part of an ambitious "transmedia" project called The Foreworld Saga. BTW - all five novels were read on the Kindle "Cloud Reader" platform.

Stephenson was just one member of an accomplished writing team assembled for this project, including Greg Bear and son Erik, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo and others. Stephenson's past historical fiction accomplishments with Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle had me eagerly anticipating the application of his talents to the medieval world of the Mongols, Kievan Rus and the Holy Roman Empire in the pivotal years 1241-1244

Digression: Stephenson's no slouch with science fiction, either. His latest, SEVENEVES, is a knockout.

Overall, the team writing approach produced a coherent and enjoyable tale, although marred by occasional jarring shifts in writing style that make switches between writers obvious. Various medieval mythical traditions were introduced along the way, serving as a "shadow" narrative that ties together all the historical events. Thus it becomes possible to enjoy The Mongoliad on two different levels. There's plenty of accurately reported history for me, and generous helpings of mythology, knightly chivalry and divine destiny for the King Arthur enthusiast.

A perhaps too-keen interest in medieval combat styles and weapons led to, in my opinion, overly detailed and hard-to-follow blow-by-blow descriptions of numerous single and group combat operations. Bernard Cornwell does that sort of writing more skillfully, though with less technical understanding.

It's impossible for a modern novelist to imagine the thinking of a person living eight hundred years ago, especially in relation to superstition and mythology. The authors take an interesting approach, creating some characters who are believers and are participants in various supernatural events. Other characters are skeptics who see none of the magical happenings witnessed and/or created by their compatriots.  

One extra fun thing: I always enjoy it when a historical character from one author's novel shows up in another's, especially more than one, and especially when the novels are not about the same events. In this case it was Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse. In Book 5 of The Mongoliad, Raymond is a Godot-like character who is expected but never arrives.

This same Raymond ("Raimond" in French) was a minor character in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series, when the quest takes the fictional protagonist Thomas of Hookton to the south of France where he becomes embroiled in the Albigensian Crusade against Catharism.

Raymond's mother was a major character in Sharon Kay Penman's novel A King's Ransom - she was Joan (or Joanna), sister of king Richard I (Lionheart) of England.

See the Wikipedia article for a partial list of historical and mythical events and persons depicted in the ''Mongoliad'' series, along with a listing of the individual novels and authors.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I had not previously read much on this pivotal period in medieval history. A remarkable number of significant events happened in a short period of time, in widely separated locations.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The history was somewhat front-loaded - the first three novels included more than the last two - but all five had plenty of genuine historical interest.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, and/or who knows? Events of eight hundred years ago are, at best, shrouded in a thick fog of time. Events happened when and where the novels place them; so, as far as can be ascertained, the history seems pretty accurate. It's overlaid, of course, with fictionalized and fictional characters, and with various mythical narratives.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Again, who knows? Genghis Khan didn't have a Facebook page. All we can ask from historical fiction authors is that they don't mess with the history. Creating plausible and compelling fictionalized versions of historical characters is a bonus. The quality of the numerous characters in The Mongoliad was uneven, but pretty high overall.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Depends. The plot tying all the history together involved heaping helpings of several different medieval mythical traditions. Do I believe that the Holy Grail is/was real? No. That doesn't prevent it from working as a plot device and as part of the metaphysical underpinnings.
Score = 4

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Raiders of the Nile, by Steven Saylor (2014)

Steven Saylor, creator of Gordianus the Finder, has written a trio of prequel novels that fill in some of the earlier adventures of a young Gordianus. The trilogy title is A Novel of the Ancient World, and the first of the three novels, titled The Seven Wonders, was reviewed previously.

The second book is Raiders of the Nile, and readers of The Seven Wonders will remember that Gordianus ends up in Alexandria (90 B.C.), where he decides to stay awhile in order to avoid the mayhem back home in Rome. Raiders of the Nile opens two years later with Gordianus still in Alexandria, situation unchanged.

Having read previously about the revolt against Rome by its neighboring Italian states, and the concurrent revolt led by Mithridates VI in faraway Pontus, readers might expect Gordianus to somehow become ensnared in one or both of those struggles. What we get instead is closer to an Indiana Jones romantic adventure, with exotic locations, fabulous treasures, bloodthirsty pirates, narrow escapes and improbable plot twists.

Which is all fine, unless you were expecting a historical novel containing lots of history - not just a historical setting. I confess to increasing disappointment as I read farther and farther without encountering either historical characters or events. It wasn't until the closing "Author's Note" that it became clear what Saylor was trying to accomplish. In researching ancient Alexandria, Saylor became interested in the novels written by the ancient Greeks - few of which survive today. Raiders of the Nile is Saylor's tribute to those Greek novels of old.

In the end, it's an entertaining story, featuring many of the same locations in ancient Alexandria that were introduced in The Seven Wonders, but the upcoming big events in Egypt's story are still just over the historical horizon. I assume Saylor doesn't intend to switch permanently to this history-lite style, so I'm going to give him a pass on the 5 criteria and move on the conclusion to the trilogy - Wrath of the Furies. Gordianus has to end up back in Rome by the end of this prequel, and I'm counting on Saylor to make that journey interesting.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Seven Wonders, by Steven Saylor (2012)

After the Wars of the Roses novel marathon, a little trip back to the Roman Empire is just the thing to clear the history palate. Steven Saylor's long-running series of historical-whodunnit novels starring Gordianus the Finder are great fun, and good history. Saylor has now penned a trio of prequel novels that fill in some of the earlier adventures of Gordianus. The first of the three is titled The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World.

Gordianus fans will remember that his official detective career began in late-republican Rome in 80 B.C. with the novel Roman Blood. The Seven Wonders takes readers back twelve years to 92 B.C. Eighteen-year-old Gordianus sets out on a tour of the Greek world, tagging along with his father's old friend Antipater of Sidon, a celebrated poet whose bucket-list goal is to visit (or revisit) all Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The grand tour begins in Ephesus (now on the west coast of Turkey) with the:
  1. Temple of Artemis. A short boat ride from Ephesus got them to 
  2. Halicarnassus and the Mausoleum. Next it's back to Greece to see the
  3. Statue of Zeus at Olympia, just in time for the 172nd Olympiad. The travelers board ship again to the island of Rhodes, where they visit the wreckage of the
  4. Colossus of Rhodes, felled by an earthquake. Then it's on to Babylon and the
  5. Hanging Gardens, and also the Ishtar Gate, only remaining (at that time) section of the walls that enclosed the ancient city. Last stop is Egypt, to see the 
  6. Great Pyramid of Giza, only one of the seven wonders that is still standing. The tour ends in Alexandria, where once stood the 
  7. Pharos of Alexandria, the famous lighthouse that replaced the Ishtar Gate in later lists. 
Of course, young Gordianus gets plenty of chances to use his blossoming detective talents, and also has his first sexual adventures (in several flavors). Saylor doesn't neglect the political turmoils of the times, weaving in a subplot related to the uprising of Mithridates VI of Pontus. Remaining in Alexandria, Gordianus misses the bloody rise in Rome of the dictators Marius and Sulla, but Colleen McCulloch has covered those stories extremely well.

As always, Saylor's style includes a lot of historical detail without ever getting pedantic - the downfall of many a lesser historical novelist. Wry humor and a lighthearted approach also help to keep things from bogging down. It's not the breakneck do-or-die action pace of a Dan Brown, but a more relaxed and cerebral sort of storytelling - one reviewer described Gordianus as a "Roman Sherlock Holmes". That's a pretty good comparison, if you imagine a modern American novelist's version of Holmes.

We'll save the "five criteria" evaluation for the conclusion of the trilogy, but it's safe to say that Saylor's novels always get high marks.

BTW - I realize that not all of the Wikipedia articles these links take you to are of high quality. You can do something about that - become a Wikipedia editor!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou, by Conn Iggulden (2015)

This second novel in Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses series brings this series of reviews up to date on recent historical fiction about this period of English history. Since this volume ends with a brief epilogue to the battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461, we know there's at least one more book to come. The first volume, Stormbird, was the first Wars of the Roses novels reviewed here.

Since then, a number of interesting side notes have come to my attention. One is that the ancient battle over Richard III's reputation is still very much alive. Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory and the Richard III society have worked to rehabilitate the king Shakespeare destroyed, but the Tudor narrative that inspired the bard also lives on. A recent book review, titled Richard III: a bad man - and even worse king, heaps scorn on the efforts of the Richard III Society, while calling attention to a new biography that seems to hew closer to the Tudor line.

The most important recent Richard III event was, of course, the 2013 discovery of Richard's remains in Leicester. Subsequent study of the skeleton has cleared up at least one controversy - the exact nature of the king's spinal deformity. Forensic investigations identified the condition as adolescent-onset scoliosis.

Unfortunately, Conn Iggulden seems to have composed his brief portrayal of the child Richard in this novel without seeing the forensic results. The portrayal presented is of a young child wracked with pain and nearly crippled by his spinal deformity, which would not have been the case with adolescent-onset scoliosis.

That early picture of a suffering child Richard, added to the sympathetic portrayal of Margaret of Anjou, seem to indicate that Iggulden leans more toward the Tudor school of thought. It will be interesting to see how the fictional Richard York develops in the remainder of this series, and whether the questions about Henry Tudor's fatherhood are mentioned, even as slanders (some have speculated that Henry VI mental condition made fatherhood unlikely).

A judgment made in my earlier review of Stormbird needs re-examination. I stated that Iggulden's style in that first volume was "closer to Sharon Kay Penman than the more military-centric Bernard Cornwell". In Margaret of Anjou, the style has definitely shifted more toward Cornwell. That may simply be a consequence of the increased number of battles contained in the period 1454-61, or it may have been a conscious effort to inject more battlefield action.

Other than the inaccurate childhood picture of Richard, factual accuracy seemed to be on a high level. Iggulden has come a long way in that regard since the execrable Emperor series, possibly aided by the story's location on home turf. So far, this a well-written series, and I look forward to the next installment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman (1982)

As promised, this "Wars of the Roses" novel roundup now goes way back to 1982 for a reread of Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour. The central character of Penman's tale is Richard York, whose reign as King Richard III of England was the penultimate chapter in the "Roses" bloodbath - giving way on the battlefield of Bosworth Field to the Tudor dynasty.

Penman's aim was to undo the damage long done to Richard's reputation by Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal - which was based on writings of contemporaries bent on promulgating an unflattering portrayal. The recent discovery of Richard's remains in Leicester supports at least one of those reforms - we now know that he was short, partly because of adolescent-onset scoliosis (spine curvature), but not Shakespeare's "hunchback". This condition may have been progressive, which in turn may have contributed to a deterioration of his mental state as he aged.

While agreeing that Richard ordered the death of the captive Henry VI, Penman successfully (to my mind) refutes the claim that Richard murdered his two young nephews in the Tower of London (in agreement with Philippa Gregory). With somewhat less success, she also takes on the slander that Richard committed incest with his niece (who later became Elizabeth Tudor - The White Princess). The first acquittal is more convincing than the second, but there's really no way to know about either one - that's what makes this period so much fun for novelists.

Other than Richard and his wife Anne, the other main characters get more-or-less equitable treatment. With the exception of the inscrutable Henry VI, they all come across as supremely ambitious, charismatic, talented leaders but with feet containing large quantities of many varieties of clay.

Richard's depression and fatalism following the deaths of his son and wife Anne supply a plausible explanation for his reckless behavior leading up to that final battle. Such behavior could even explain the desertion of allies who might have begun to doubt Richard's capacity to lead. Again, we'll never know for sure, but it works in a novel.

The Sunne in Splendour is still my favorite of all the "Wars of the Roses" novels, and gets straight 5's on the criteria, except perhaps for the last - plausibility. It's rather unfair, however, to criticize any novelist for failure to come up with entirely plausible (to the modern mind) explanations for inexplicable actions that occurred 600 years ago.

Still, the goal of a good (as judged here) historical novel is to tell a ripping good yarn without obvious abuse of recorded facts. Sharon Kay Penman accomplishes that feat as well as anyone.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears

Stone's Fall is a 2009 historical-mystery novel by [[Iain Pears]]. The following was originally written in 2011 as a Wikipedia article - the first WP article I ever attempted. The double brackets around  around some words were "wikilinks" - hyperlinks to other articles. I left them in the text in case anyone wants to read more on Wikipedia (as I did) about any of these people, places, and events.

The level of historical detail in Stone's Fall is remarkable, and inspired me to compose the "historical references" sections. This novel remains the gold standard for the first of the five criteria: "Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?".

I now understand that such material is not really appropriate for a Wikipedia article about a novel, and it was finally deleted by another editor (November, 2015). Someone commented that the material was more appropriate for a blog. So it is, so here it is.


An aging BBC reporter approaching retirement in 1953, Matthew Braddock is on a farewell tour, visiting the old Paris bureau. Chancing upon a familiar name in the obituary notices, he decides to attend the funeral of an acquaintance he has not seen for many years. 

After the service, he is approached by a stranger who introduces himself as the deceased woman's solicitor. He surprises Braddock with the information that the firm has been holding a package for many years, addressed to him, with instructions to deliver it only after this woman's death. 

Later, on his trip back to London, Braddock reminisces about those days of his youth in 1909, when he met the beautiful and mysterious Elizabeth. Equally mysterious was the death (and life) of her husband, Baron Ravenscliff, born John William Stone. 

Later, Braddock opens the long-delayed package to find a pair of extraordinary manuscripts. These two documents, written accounts of events occurring in 1890 and 1867 respectively, follow Braddock's recollections to form the three-part structure of the historical-mystery novel ''Stone's Fall''.

The next article section, '''Historical references''', lists existing and/or historical persons, places, and events mentioned in quotations from ''Stone's Fall'', with citations or internal links to other Wikipedia articles. Page numbers are from the hardcover edition.

The final section, '''Historical liberties''', includes a listing of inconsistencies found between historical facts and the same "facts" as presented in ''Stone's Fall.''

Historical References (direct and indirect)

Prologue - Paris, 1953

  • p.3 [[Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés|Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés]] - site of Elizabeth's funeral 

Part One - London, 1909 – Matthew Braddock's story: London

  • p.11 "[[St. James's Square]] impressive townhouse" – Ravenscliff's residence. 
  • p.25 "[[Mornington Crescent (street)|Mornington Crescent]] trial" – the name given to a fictional(?) murder trial. The name suggests a reference to the "[[Camden Town murder]]" of 1907. Painter [[Walter Sickert]] lived on Mornington Crescent at the time, and later renamed a group of his paintings ''[[The Camden Town Murder]]''. 
  • p.32 "[[Bow Street Magistrates Court]] or the [[Old Bailey]]" – two primary sources for Braddock's crime reporting 
  • p.33 "[[Wilhelm II, German Emperor|Kaiser Wilhelm]]", "[[King Edward VII|King Edward]]". Wilhelm II was the last German Kaiser, 1888-1918. Edward VII became king after the death of [[Queen Victoria]], reigning from 1901 to 1910 (see also the p.306 reference below, where Edward visits Biarritz before he was king). 
  • p.34 "The Prime Minister, [[H. H. Asquith|Asquith]], and his chancellor, [[Lloyd George]]" - leaders of the Liberal government from 1908 to 1916.
  • p.37 "[[Chelsea, London|Chelsea]]...Paradise Walk...[[Tite Street]]" - Paradise Walk runs parallel to [[Tite Street]]. 
  • p.38 "Sargent" - The American painter [[John Singer Sargent]] lived on [[Tite Street]]. :: "Henry MacAlpine" - a little joke here; MacAlpine is a fictional painter in [[Iain Pears|Pears’]] novel ''The Portrait''. 
  • p.41 "Chelsea Library" - the old library was on Manresa Road. In 1980, it was acquired by [[Chelsea College of Art and Design]]. 
  • p.42 "[[Fleet Street]]" – synonymous with London journalism in the 20th century. :: "[[Reform Club]]" - a gentlemen's club "for [[Liberal Party (UK)|Liberal]] grandees", still in existence 
  • p.50 "...[[Carlos I of Portugal#Assassination|King of Portugal]] was assassinated..." - refers to King Carlos I, assassinated in 1908 
  • p.54 "at the Exchange" - refers to the [[London Stock Exchange]], located (in 1909) in Capel Court, off Bartholomew Lane across from the [[Bank of England]]. Capel Court is now gone, along with the rest of the block. 
  • p.57 "[[Cazenove (stock broker)|Cazenove]]…acting for [[Barings Bank|Barings]]" - two of the leading London [[merchant bank]]s at that time.
  • p.64 "[[Jean-Jacques Henner]]" - Elizabeth volunteers the artist's name after observing Braddock's admiration of a portrait of her, dressed in "a golden red dress". Henner was a prominent French painter in Paris when Elizabeth lived there in the 1880s. 
  • p.75 "[[The Ritz London Hotel|Ritz Hotel]]" - The famous [[Piccadilly]] hotel, still in existence at the north-east corner of [[Green Park]], was the upscale residence of the fictional Theodore Xanthos. Note: the fictional Xanthos bears some resemblance to real-life arms dealer [[Basil Zaharoff]].
  • p.83 "...out of the Ritz and up [[Bond Street]]" - Braddock catches a bus (horse-drawn) and makes his way to his former editor's home in [[Camden Town|Camden]]. On the way, he passes the "great houses of Portman Place" (not found, but maybe part of the [[Portman Estate]]? Or did the author mean [[Portland Place]]?) Later, Braddock passes the "even greater establishments of [[Regent's Park]]". 
  • p.83 "furniture from [[Heal's]]" - a venerable department store on [[Tottenham Court Road]] 
  • p.90 "The [[Hotel Russell|Russell Hotel]] in [[Bloomsbury]] was a fairly new building"(completed in 1898, still in existence) 
  • p.138 " agent for the [[Dual Alliance, 1879|Dual Alliance]]...the thanks of the [[Wilhelm II|Kaiser]]...". Elizabeth jokes about being a spy for Britain's current continental rivals, the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, negotiated in 1879 by [[Otto von Bismarck|Bismarck]]. 
  • p.149 "The Anarchist Club, 165 Jubilee Street". Apparently fictional, but similar to historical places and events. For example, see: [[Walsall Anarchists]]. Jubilee Street, Commercial Road, Turner Street,and Newark Street are all located in the old [[East End of London]] (now part of the [[London Borough of Tower Hamlets|Tower Hamlets]] district) 
  • p.151 "[[Prince Kropotkin|Comrade Kropotkin]]" - refers to Peter Kropotkin, the exiled Russian anarchist 
  • p.160 "Wine Office Court, past the Cheshire Cheese". The venerable pub ''[[Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese]]'' is still open for business, just off [[Fleet Street]]. 
  • p.170 "[[Rothschild family|Rothschild's]] at Waddesdon". [[Waddesdon Manor]] was the Rothschild family seat in England, and the most opulent of the many [[Rothschild properties in England]]. 
  • p.170 "Natty Rothschild". A nickname for [[Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild|Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild]], head of [[N M Rothschild & Sons]], principal rivals to Barings in London [[merchant bank]]ing. 
  • p.172 "{{Citation/make link||Royal Station Hotel}}". Braddock takes a train to [[Newcastle upon Tyne|Newcastle]] and checks into this Victorian hotel, still in business opposite the main station. 
  • p.174 "...the Beswick Shipyard..." - fictional name, but similar to an historical shipbuilding yard at [[Elswick, Tyne and Wear|Elswick]] (a ward of the city of [[Newcastle upon Tyne]]). The facility (no longer in existence) was part of [[Armstrong Whitworth]], the manufacturing company founded by [[William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong]]. 
  • p.175 "HMS Anson, a dreadnought, 23,000 tons." The {{HMS|Monarch|1911|6}}, built in Armstrong's shipyard, is a close match for the fictional HMS ''Anson''. There was a real {{HMS|Anson|1886|6}}, but it was an older and smaller (10,600 tons) battleship that was sold in 1909. 
  • p.177 "When we launched ''Intrepid'' last year..." - there were eight versions of {{HMS|Intrepid}}, but this one is fictional. 
  • p.194 "Tom Baring himself..." - refers to [[Thomas "Tom" Baring (1839-1923)]], brought in as one of the Managing Directors of [[Barings Bank|Baring Brothers and Company, Ltd.]] after the [[Panic of 1890]]. Tom was, in 1909, the eldest of the Barings in the banking partnership, but his nephew {{Citation/make link||John}}, 2nd [[Baron Revelstoke]], was senior partner. 
  • p.195 "...the disaster twenty years ago..." - refers to the [[Panic of 1890]] 
  • p.204 "to Cowes…for the week" – refers to the annual [[Cowes Week]] regatta 
  • p.208 "[[Whiteleys]] department store in [[Bayswater]]..." The site is now Whiteleys Shopping Centre, on [[Queensway (London)|Queensway]]. The building existing in 1909 is gone. 
  • p.208 " [[Waterloo Station]] and caught the 1:45 to [[Southampton]]". The station was completely demolished and rebuilt starting in 1904, but never completely closed. The official reopening was not until 1922. 
  • p.208 "Henley and Ascot" "Henley" refers to the [[Henley Royal Regatta]]. "Ascot" refers to Royal Ascot, the famous thoroughbred race meeting held annually since 1711 at [[Ascot Racecourse]] in [[Berkshire]]. 

Cowes, Isle of Wight

  • p.211 "Mrs. [[Sir Godfrey Baring, 1st Baronet|Godfrey Baring]]'s bal masque". Godfrey Baring was soon to be a Baronet and MP for the Isle of Wight (1911). 
  • p.211 "the [[Solent]]". The body of water separating the Isle of Wight from the main island of Great Britain. 
  • p.212 "up the Esplanade to Egypt House..." The Esplanade is a long, paved waterfront footpath, paralleling Queen's Road and running west ("up") from Cowes. "{{Citation/make link||Egypt House}}" was built c.1880. 
  • p.212 "the ''[[HMY Victoria and Albert III|Victoria and Albert]]''". HMY Victoria and Albert III, the Royal Yacht, entered service in 1901. 
  • p.212 "There is no bridge, just a strange contraption which looks like a floating wooden shed that is pulled this way and that across the water by chains…", The [[Cowes Floating Bridge]] is still in daily operation, connecting [[Cowes]] and [[East Cowes]]. Nowadays, it resembles an ordinary ferry, but in period photos it does indeed look like a "floating wooden shed". 
  • p.215 "...up Egypt Hill, a road that...skirted the gardens of the Baring house". The house (now demolished) was known as Nubia House; residence of [[Sir Godfrey Baring, 1st Baronet|Godfrey Baring]]. 
  • p.221 "The Tsar of all the Russias. [[Nicholas II of Russia|Nicholas II]]". The last Tsar, as it turned out. 
  • p.221 "the imperial yacht, the ''Sandrart''". This is a misspelling; the correct name is ''[[Standart (yacht)|Standart]]''. 
  • p.222 "Osborne...up York Avenue to the main gate." Prince Albert designed [[Osborne House]] as a summer home and rural retreat for himself and Queen Victoria. There are two entrances off York Avenue. The Royal Entrance has a gated archway.  

Part Two – Paris 1890

Henry Cort's story: London

  • p.242 "a lovely [[Adam style|Adam]] house in [[Scottish borders|the Borders]] in the summer." - refers to the areas along the border between England and Scotland. :
  • p.244 "[[Balliol College, Oxford|Balliol]]..." - Balliol College is at Oxford. :p.244 "... a Fellow of [[Trinity College, Oxford|Trinity]]..." - refers to Trinity College, Oxford. 
  • p.245 "[[Athenaeum Club, London|the Athenaeum]]". Another distinguished "gentlemen's club", still in existence. 


  • p.250 "train to [[Dover]]...crossed the [[English Channel|Channel]] by steamer to [[Calais]]...arrived at the [[Gare du Nord]]...". Cort travels to Paris in the days before the Chunnel, or even the [[Golden Arrow (train)|Golden Arrow]]. 
  • p.251 "Fifteen rue Poulletier...[[Île Saint-Louis]]" Just upstream from, and connected by bridge to the famous [[Île de la Cité]], is the less well-known Île Saint Louis. 
  • p.263 "the [[Vickers]], the [[Krupp]]s and the [[Schneider Electric|Schneiders]]" - a trio of families; British, German and French respectively, that made their fortunes in arms manufacturing. 
  • p.265 "[[Nancy, France|Nancy]]...much closer to the German border than it wanted to be." This refers to the post-[[Franco-Prussian War]] border. After World War I, Nancy ceased to be a border town (see also p.267 in the 'Historical Liberties' section below). 
  • p.284 "Lord Revelstoke, the chairman of Barings…" - refers to [[Edward Baring, 1st Baron Revelstoke]]. 
  • p.291 "Theatre only if Bernhardt is involved" - refers to [[Sarah Bernhardt]], the French actress. 


  • p.292 [[Biarritz]] "…Hotel du Palais to the north…" - refers to the [[Hotel du Palais]], built in 1854 by [[Napoleon III]], as a beach palace for his Empress, [[Eugénie de Montijo|Eugénie]] 
  • p.292 "Princess Natalie of Romania" [historical or fictional?] :p.296 "[[Maurice Rouvier]]". Rouvier was Finance Minister from 1889 to 1892.
  • p.306 "Prince of Wales" - before he became [[King Edward VII]]. :p.307 ''"[[Almanach de Gotha]]"''. A respected directory of Europe's highest nobility and royalty. 


  • p.313 "facade of the [[Crédit Lyonnais]], just visible on the boulevard beyond.". The bank's headquarters was on [[Boulevard des Italiens]]. 
  • p.318 "[[Chamber of Deputies of France|Chambre des Députés]]". The lower house of parliament from 1875 to 1940, during the [[French Third Republic]].
  • p.318 "England...bought the [[Suez Canal]] strangle France's Empire". Great Britain bought the Egyptian share of Canal ownership in 1888. Prior to this, British troops occupied the Canal following the [[1882 Anglo-Egyptian War]]. 
  • p.319 "the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas" This was an important French [[merchant bank]] in 1890; now part of [[BNP Paribas]]. 
  • p.327 "Hotel du Louvre" - this Paris hotel fills a prominent block between the [[Palais Royal]] and the [[Louvre Palace]]. 
  • p.330 "Lapérouse" - the [[Left Bank]] restaurant. 
  • p.337 "all the way up to [[Belleville, Paris|Belleville]]" - Belleville was annexed by the City of Paris in 1860. 
  • p.343 "[[Longchamp Racecourse|Longchamp]]". Longchamp Racecourse is a horse-racing facility located in the western end of the [[Bois de Boulogne]], which is also the western edge of Paris. 
  • p.348 "the American railroad collapse" - probably refers to the [[Panic of 1873]]. 
  • p.349 "back across the [[Bois de Boulogne]] to Paris". One of two huge urban parks in Paris, part of the 19th century redesign of Paris by [[Baron Haussmann]]. 
  • p.350 "Avenue de la Grande Armée". One of the twelve grand avenues radiating away from the [[Arc de Triomphe]]; also part of Haussmann's design. 
  • p.355 "[[Bank of England]] wouldn't have enough gold..." - these were the days of the "[[gold standard]]". 
  • p.359 "No market [for automobiles in Britain] until the government allows them to go more than four miles an hour." This situation finally changed with the [[Locomotives on Highways Act 1896]]. 
  • p.366 "a [[Mayer Alphonse James Rothschild|Rothschild]] or a [[Jacques de Reinach|Reinach]] or a [[Barings Bank|Baring]]". Three of the top families in European banking at the time. 
  • p.368 "British Embassy". Then and now, located at 35 [[Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré]]. 
  • p.368 "Next came the Russian Embassy". A bit of a walk to Rue de Grenelle, across the [[Seine]] in the [[7th arrondissement of Paris|7th arrondissement]]; now part of the [[Minister of National Education (France)|Ministry of National Education]] complex. 
  • p.392 "nearby English church" - refers to St. Michael's. The "{{Citation/make link||imitation of an English Gothic building}}" has been replaced. 


  • p.394 "arrived at [[London Victoria station|Victoria]]...then drove directly to the [[Foreign Office]]" - refers to the building on [[Whitehall]], constructed in 1868. 
  • p.395 "[[Williams & Glyn's Bank|Glyn Mills]]". A private London bank, established in 1753; it is part of [[RBS Group]] today. 
  • p.395 "[[Argentina]] is in a virtual state of war." The [[Revolución del Parque]] began in July, 1890. 
  • p.396 "Just round the corner was Downing Street...past the [[10 Downing Street|Prime Minister's house]]...knocked on the door of [[11 Downing Street|Number 11]]" 
  • p.396 "Three men were already there: [[Edward Baring, 1st Baron Revelstoke|Lord Revelstoke]]; [[William Lidderdale]], Governor of the [[Bank of England|Bank]]; and [[George Goschen]], the [[Chancellor of the Exchequer]]." The purpose of this meeting was to attempt to avert the financial disaster that later came to be known as "The [[Panic of 1890]]". 
  • p.400 "head of the English branch at this time was Natty Rothschild". His full name was [[Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild|Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild]]. 


  • p.403 "the Rothschild mansion in the Eighth Arrondissemant" - refers to the {{Citation/make link||Hotel de Saint-Florentin}}, Paris residence of [[Édouard Alphonse James de Rothschild|Alphonse de Rothschild]], Natty's cousin and head of the French branch of the family business. 
  • p.404 "M. Magnin...[[Bank of France]]". Pierre Magnin was [[Governor of the Bank de France|Governor of the Bank of France]] from 1881 to 1897. 
  • p.406 "rue Daru...[[Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe|Alexander Nevski Cathedral]]". The cathedral was and is the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox church in western Europe. 
  • p.410 "Bismarck has gone. The [[Reinsurance Treaty|treaty]] you [Russia] had with Germany went with him." German Chancellor [[Otto von Bismarck]] was forced to resign in March 1890, some months before the events against which this chapter is set. 
  • p.432 "construction of the port of Nicolaieff [sic] on the Black Sea". The [[Black Sea Shipyard]] was established at [[Mykolaiv|Nikolaev]] in 1897.

Part Three – Venice 1867 – John Stone's story

  • p.435 "Hotel Europa". The hotel was later the location of the original [[Harry's Bar (Venice)|Harry's Bar]]. 
  • p.444 "Macintyre". The British expat engineer (no first name given) is a fictional character; perhaps loosely based on [[Robert Whitehead]], inventor of the self-propelled (or "automobile") [[torpedo]]. 
  • p.444 "Sottini's in [[Mestre]]". Mestre is near Venice, on the mainland. 
  • p.446 "as the Venetians themselves abandoned [[Torcello]]". The natural island of [[Torcello]] was the oldest and once the most populous area of Venice. Today it is almost deserted except for tourists. 
  • p.473 Dunbury scandal: "a foolishly conceived scheme…railway built across a two-hundred-mile swamp in Russia" – historical or fictional? This incident is mentioned twice in the novel. 
  • p.485 "Laird's in Liverpool" Technically, the British ship builder was located in Birkenhead, across the [[River Mersey|Mersey]] from [[Liverpool]]. Laird's later became part of [[Cammell Laird]]. 
  • p.536 "you remember the [[CSS Alabama|Alabama]]?" The infamous Confederate raider was built by Laird's during the [[American Civil War]]. 
  • p.545 "[[San Servolo]]. The island lies between San Marco and the Lido". - An early Benedictine monastery was established on the island, which later became a psychiatric hospital. 

Historical liberties

  • p.33 Kaiser Wilhelm is mentioned as being the grand-nephew of Queen Victoria. He was, in fact, her grandson. 
  • p.267 "the occupied part of Alsace...". The author probably meant [[Lorraine (region)|Lorraine]] rather than [[Alsace]]. The [[Treaty of Frankfurt (1871)]] ending the [[Franco-Prussian War]] ceded all of Alsace and northern parts of Lorraine to Germany, forming the new German imperial territory of [[Alsace-Lorraine]]. [[Nancy, France|Nancy]], the capital of Lorraine, was close to the border between the two sections of divided Lorraine. Nancy is not so close to any part of Alsace. 

Possible plot holes

In the opening chapters, the actual business of the administration of estates, obtaining probate of a will, the publication at the Principal Probate Registry of wills that are so proved, and the ability of executors to set aside funds for missing beneficiaries, are completely ignored. In this novel, the supposed inability of the executor to administer the estate (as long as there is a missing beneficiary) is no inability at all; it seems to have been portrayed as such for plotting.
 :p.240 "Your account of the events you took part in was impeccable ..." A curious statement, written by Cort in 1943; the evidence in the novel is that Braddock's "account" existed before 1953 only in the form of private notes, which Braddock "digs out" after Elizabeth's funeral. This is not a problem related to any historical information - only a lack of internal consistency in the fictional history. However, Cort might be referring to Braddock's ''oral'' account that he offers to Cort during their one meeting in the hospital of 1910, not to the ''written'' account. Alternatively, as Cort is a very skilful spy, he may have gained access to Braddock's notes secretly around that time.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Cousins' War: "The White Princess" (book 5), by Philippa Gregory

This is a continuation of earlier reviews of books 1-4 in Philippa Gregory's six-novel series known as The Cousins' War. As noted in the review of book 4 of this series, The Kingmaker's Daughter, novelist Philippa Gregory used the contrasting personalities and viewpoints of prominent female members of the competing Plantagenet family lines to illustrate the rivalries that produced the "War of the Roses". And, as promised, book 5 converges those lines in the story of Elizabeth Tudor - The White Princess.

Elizabeth's conflicting loyalties and emotions mirror those of the rival families as she goes from princess to outcast to political pawn and finally to Queen of England, but with a crown never allowed to sit comfortably. Because of the tortuous path to the crown, Henry Tudor - King Henry VII of England - never felt secure wearing that crown. But he survived all challenges, as did his queen. The resulting Tudor dynasty utterly failed to smooth the troubled royal waters, but produced much more great material for historical novelists. Henry VIII gets all the attention, but The Cousins' War is a worthy prolog.

Out of all the dynastic furor, Philippa Gregory reserves greatest sympathy for the three generations of Woodville women - Jacquetta, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth again. In these novels, they lack the arrogance and ambition of the noble families, perhaps owing to their more humble English lineage coupled with descent from a French goddess. It makes for a good theme to tie the series together.

The mother of all "War of the Roses" novelists, Sharon Kay Penman, presented yet another very different picture of the Woodvilles, Yorks, Lancasters and Tudors. Next - a look at The Sunne in Splendour