Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Conn Iggulden’s Ravenspur, as well as other books in his Wars of the Roses historical fiction series
If I were reviewing this is a fantasy book, I would critique is for being repetitive. After all, this is book four in which Lancaster and York fight, kings get captures, kings get killed, people don’t have heirs at the appropriate times, and battles are fought over the exact same thing that they were waged a few years ago. However, if this is not a fantasy novel, so I can’t blame Iggulden if Ravenspur started to feel repetitive in places. This is, after all, what really happened, or at least the broad strokes are. For some thirty years, the houses of York and Lancaster fought back and forth over the throne of England, and devastated the population in the process.
For all that the broad strokes can seem unoriginal, Iggulden does a fantastic job of painting how, from the perspective of the characters, their actions are completely justified and logical. And it does make sense: if your throne is forcefully taken from you, and you are chased into exile, wouldn’t you start plotting how to take it back? It is not the kings that I marvel at; it is the mercurial lords who go along with them. Which, if you recall from previous posts talking about this series, is one of the points Iggulden wanted to convey, just how kings were perceived during this era. In a way, I wonder if it is this era that changed that, with Earl Warwick even being named “kingmaker.”
I’m frequently impressed by how well Iggulden is able to express the motivations and perspectives of characters in a sympathetic light, despite them being very much a product of a time with mores and values very different from our own. Certainly he paints York to be a fascinating and multifaceted character, and his brother Richard, as well. However, when Richard takes the thrown after Edward’s death, he falters a bit in explaining Richard’s motivations. This again cannot really be blamed on the author, since there simply is not a great deal of information off of which to base an account. By all historical accounts, Richard was deeply committed to his brother; it seems odd to me that he would then seize the throne and disinherit his brother’s children. In the historical note, Iggulden makes the intriguing observation that, ruling for only a couple of years. Richard III was likely saved from complete obscurity by Shakespeare.
As the series has progressed, it has trended towards more and more omniscient perspectives. In the first novel, we have a fairly tight view of Margaret of Anjou, whereas this book tends to focus much less on setting up and diving deeply into any one character. This is good, I think, since it would be even more difficult to keep track of everyone if we were forced to keep a single perspective. Apparently, no one in this time was very creative with names. It makes one wonder if fantasy books would be more realistic if at least three characters in each book shared the same name. It also makes one think that doing so would be a horrible idea.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is the Tudor victory at the end, which I suspect is part of the point; the Tudors seemed to rise from nowhere, and somehow gather enough loyal supporters to throw down Richard and bring a new house to the throne. You can tell that Iggulden is struggling with gaps in the historical record for many of the battles, or perhaps just with the nature of reality. In fiction, everything tends to be neat, to make sense, even when it’s terribly messy and unrealistic. Yet in the Wars of the Roses, there were many instances where actions were taken and decisions were made that, looking back, don’t seem to make sense at all, and resulted in huge changes to the course of the war.
I’ll be reviewing the series as a whole in another post, but for now, if you’ve been reading along, I encourage you to finish up this series with Ravenspur.