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Book Review: Margaret of Anjou

By (June 17, 2015) No Comment

War of the Roses: Margaret of Anjoumargaret of anjou cover

by Conn Iggulden

Putnam, 2015

Even if bestselling historical novelist Conn Iggulden didn’t freely admit that his new series “War of the Roses” was inspired by George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” readers of its first installment, Stormbird, and its new second book, Margaret of Anjou, would spot the family resemblance, as it were, in about two pages. Martin himself has made frequent mention of the fact that his own series – first the popular novels and then the astronomically popular TV series – is loosely patterned after the epic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster that rent the peace and stability of England during the 15th Century, so it’s something of a miracle that we haven’t been absolutely swamped with Plantagenet potboilers all claiming to be the “real” “Game of Thrones.” But if all such potboilers turned out to be as juicy-good as this series by Iggulden, there’d be little cause to complain.

Iggulden is a veteran hand at this kind of action- and treachery-splattered historical fiction, having written series of novels about ancient Rome and Genghis Khan, and in this latest of his novel, he upgrades to a truly A-grade monster, Margaret of Anjou, the wife of poor intermittently insane King Henry VI and one of the small handful of terrifying women who drove so much of the Wars of the Roses. Iggulden’s version of her is more heroic than the historical version likely was, but she can still be stridently angry about the outrages she’s experienced as royal chattel:

“My son is the heir. For little Edward, I suffered the humiliations of York and Salisbury present at the birth, creeping around my bed and peeping under the covers to be sure the babe was my own! Lord Somerset almost came to blows to protect my honor then … There are times when I wish he had put a sword through the Plantagenet then and there, for his impudence and his insults.”

Iggulden has shrewdly noticed (and this will again be familiar to fans of George R. R. Martin’s books) the extent to which the Wars of the Roses is about the next generation as much as it is the present one. It isn’t just Margaret of Anjou who routinely growls about progeny; all of Iggulden’s mud-spattered and battle-hardened characters necessarily find themselves concerned with babes and children, the frail little claims they’re putting on the future, their conflicting dynastic ambitions made flesh. All of Iggulden’s characters care as much about the future as they do about the present, and all of them are as watchful of their chances as any of their knock-off doppelgangers in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Richard, the Duke of York, for instance, is thinking about the prestige of his house when he upbraids Cecily Neville (another of the monster-women of the period) for her decision to keep a certain little crook-back alive:

“Cecily, if you would have shown him mercy, you’d have put him out on a winter’s night and let the cold take him. He’s two years old and he still screams all night and day! I tell you the Spartans had the right of it. My doctors says his spine is bending, that it will only get worse. He won’t live without pain, and he won’t thank you for sparing him if he grows to be a cripple. Would you shame my house, with a twisted son? Will he be driven made by it, left in some lonely house to be tended by servants, like a mad dog or a simpleton? There is no sin in letting him go, just putting him into the cold. Father Samuel has assured me of that.”

And Iggulden fashions her answer as tellingly similar to that of Margaret:

“You will not touch a hair of his head, Richard Plantagenet. Do you understand me? I have lost five children for your house and name. I have borne six alive and I am pregnant once again. I believe I have given enough to York. So if I choose to keep this one safe, if he never walks even, it is not your concern. I have done enough, borne enough. This child needs me more than all the rest, and I will tend him alone if I must …”

Iggulden typically does just exactly as much historical research as will be convenient for the exciting and hyper-readable stories he wants to tell (it may be the only thing he has in common with William Shakespeare, but it’s not a bad thing to have in common with him), but these first two “War of the Roses” books are sounder than most fiction set in this exceedingly complicated period, and the dramatics don’t fail at any point – which is really what readers come to a Conn Iggulden book for in the first place.

When his narrative focus gets around to the worst of the monster-women of the period, the appalling, diminutive Margaret Beaufort, Iggulden’s readers will find themselves pining for the sweet, gentle folk of Westeros.