War of the Roses: Stormbird
- By Conn Iggulden
- G.P. Putnam’s Sons
- 496 pp.
- Reviewed by Alka Pradhan
- September 16, 2014
In this historical novel set during England’s storied conflict, Queen Margaret of Anjou is the heroine of the story.
The era of England’s Wars of the Roses is one of those grand and bloody periods that will be mined forever for books, movies, and theme parks. A reader perusing the highly incestuous family trees of the Houses of Lancaster and York provided by author Conn Iggulden at the beginning of his recent novel, Stormbird, might be tempted to juxtapose the characters from A Game of Thrones — several of whom are said to be based on these historical figures.
But Iggulden’s story is, almost to the letter, all true. Stormbird is the first in a trilogy on the Wars of the Roses, and his retelling is a truly mesmerizing romp through 15th-century England and France.
After a brief scene at the deathbed of Edward III, whose descendants comprise the two houses, we jump forward 75 years to unrest in France. King Henry VI is a young, weak king, a shadow of his father, Henry V, who won the legendary Battle of Agincourt. Spymaster Derry Brewer (one of the few fictional characters in Stormbird) understands that this king cannot hold the French lands for long, and conjures up that most medieval of remedies, a royal marriage.
Henry marries Margaret of Anjou, a French princess, as part of a truce that returns her family’s lands to French control. The English, including Henry’s cousin Richard, Duke of York, are livid at the loss. While the duke gathers supporters for his own claim to the throne, English peasants bearing the brunt of the corruption under Henry’s reign gear up for revolt.
Although much of the action takes place among the lords and soldiers throughout parts of London, Kent, and France, Margaret is the revelation here. Gone is the “She-Wolf of France,” the misogynistic title bestowed upon the queen after decades of uncontested propaganda by the Yorkists.
By detailing her development from a shy teenage princess forced to defend her position and marriage against volatile political factions, Iggulden makes Margaret the heroine of the story. Throw into the mix a mentally ill and physically weak king who increasingly relies on her guidance, and she becomes almost a martyr.
The emphasis in this book is on Margaret’s journey from obscurity in an empty French castle to her first tentative commands as queen of England. The reader will look forward to the growth of her famously forceful personality and political acumen in the rest of the trilogy.
Although he recasts perspectives, Iggulden doesn’t rewrite history. Henry VI had such a weak grasp on the reins of power that his subjects suffered terribly. Those who wielded influence at court took whatever lands and positions they could, and there was a general breakdown of law and order in England.
Against this background rises the character of Jack Cade, who leads a daring rebellion from the marshes of Kent into the heart of London. Cade’s rebellion was described by Shakespeare in Henry VI, but somehow the drama has rarely hit the written page since. In Iggulden’s hands, Cade becomes a fully realized character, a rough-and-ready leader whose fatal flaw — drink — colors the doomed rebellion.
The account of the rebellion itself is a brilliant tool for understanding the various power struggles of the time. The ill king and inexperienced queen, the courtiers jostling to keep them in power, and the myriad lords seeking to unseat them were all forced to join hands to combat the most dangerous threat: an angry and oppressed population.
With the support of the people of London, the rebellion might have succeeded, or been far more debilitating. But Cade and his men condemn their own movement by pillaging London, and the would-be overthrow triggers the rise of the House of York against the king.
The events in Stormbird take place roughly between 1443 and 1454, although Iggulden admits in his postscript notes that several items are moved around for the sake of narrative. The notes, along with the dizzying family trees provided at the start, are riveting, as they confirm most of the historical details and events.
The introduction of the most prominent fictional character, the king’s spymaster, Derihew Brewer, can be forgiven (even if the name cannot), as Brewer is central to all of the events that take place and, as Iggulden points out, someone like Brewer would certainly have existed.
Of course, historical fiction can be a difficult genre, and Stormbird trips slightly in two common problem areas: narrative structure and dialogue. The novel is told in short bursts from a series of different viewpoints, from lowly peasants and former soldiers to Queen Margaret and the Duke of York. Although Iggulden makes each character believable — no small feat — the sudden switches in narrators and scenes are sometimes confusing.
More distracting are some of the lines uttered by the characters, particularly the over-the-top bombast of Derry Brewer and the wooden delivery of the Duke and Duchess of York. These are partially remedied by the flashes of humor injected into the drama, as they must have been even during the wars. At a critical juncture during Cade’s rebellion, a nasty, ankle-deep trudge through London’s “Shiteburn Lane” sends a young lord’s (and the reader’s) eyes rolling.
As in his Emperor series, which details the life of Julius Caesar, Iggulden has tackled a complex and lengthy historical period. Rather than simplifying it, he uses the existing plots and cast of characters to his advantage, requiring the reader to make some effort to keep up.
The work pays off. In the tradition of great historical fiction, Stormbird will leave readers waiting eagerly for the sequels while satiating lingering curiosity over their own research on the Wars of the Roses.
Alka Pradhan is a human rights and national security lawyer living in Washington, DC. She is a committed Anglophile and amateur historian specializing in the Elizabethan era.