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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wars of the Roses: Stormbird, by Conn Iggulden (2014)

Conn Iggulden is not a new face in historical fiction, but Wars of the Roses: Stormbird, is the first of his many novels I've read. Looking for something with an approximate historical relationship to my recent reading of English medieval royalty tales, I found this first volume of Iggulden's newest series. As the title makes clear, the historical setting is England's civil war fought to decide the successor to King Edward VI.

Stormbird begins with a prologue scene at the death of Edward III in 1377. The characters present at that drama foreshadow the later conflict between the two noble houses: Lancaster and York (Iggulden includes a helpful family tree).

Then the date jumps to 1443, 21 years after the death of the legendary warrior Edward V, hero of Agincourt and a Lancaster. The young son surviving Edward's premature death is now grown, but has not shown the leadership qualities of his father. English possessions on the continent are threatened by Philip II of France, and Edward's advisors attempt to buy peace with that tried-and-true royal strategy - marriage.

 The peace treaty that comes with the wedding vows fails, however, to stop the erosion of English fortunes, and dissatisfaction grows with the king's lack of martial and political prowess. Leader of the opposing royal faction is Richard, Duke of York - also a great-grandson of Edward III. But rebellion rises first from a more humble level, led by a Kentish commoner named Jack Cade, whose peasant army threatens London itself.

It was a turbulent time in merrie olde England, and Conn Iggulden tells the story well.  

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Much of this history was only vaguely familiar to me. Everyone has heard of the "War of the Roses", probably because of the poetic-sounding name, but the gory details make great historical-novel fodder.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Iggulden obviously enjoys the twists and turns and details of political intrigue, and this slice of English history contains an extra-large helping of those elements. That emphasis puts his style closer to Sharon Kay Penman than the more military-centric Bernard Cornwell.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. The historical research seems to be thorough and on a par with other hist-fict writers I like. Inclusion of a "Historical Note" section at the end raises the score from 4 to 5.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
As with most novels employing fictionalized historical characters, the most you can usually say is that the characters' actions are consistent with historical records of those actions. The real fun of this type of historical novel, however, is the examination of personalities, motivations, influences and - in the case of Henry VI - even medical histories. Iggulden seems to consider all of the historical evidence available before going on to fill in the blanks with informed fiction. The question becomes, then: "Don't fictionalized historical characters, by definition, have to be less "accurate" than ones who only do and say the things history has recorded? So as a rule, although I often enjoy them more, I'm going to take a point away (from now on) from any novel that fictionalizes historical characters.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes - from a modern perspective. Another unavoidable problem with historical fiction is the impossibility of understanding a lot of what people were thinking 600 years ago, but within that context I found Iggulden's storytelling to be excellent. He avoids the extreme stereotype heroes and villains, and the plot moves always make sense.
Score = 5

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