Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series
Although I don’t consider myself a “history nut,” I’ve long been fascinated by history, especially at taking an in-depth look at certain figures and times out of the historical record. Historical fiction is a great way of doing this, although it’s always important to keep in mind that it is fiction; these are retellings of history based on historical events, not direct, factual accounts. In most of my reading, I’ve looked at Egypt, Rome, Greece, Persia, China, America, but surprisingly little of my time has been spent examining the early history of England, or Europe, for that matter. I know the broad strokes, but until the Age of Exploration, I tended to ignore the goings-on in Europe (as did most of the world, to be honest).
Considering that a lot of classic fantasy genre tropes come from this period and region of history, perhaps that is a bit of an oversight on my part, one that reading Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series has helped me address. In fact, reading these books, combined with some thinking I’ve been doing recently about plotting, has led me to some interesting reflections. So while this is still a review of the series, I also want to talk a little about those thoughts.
In a word, Iggulden’s books are gritty. With a lot of fiction, the characters to varying extents act and think a lot like modern people that have been planted in different environments. Some of this is inevitable for two reasons: one, the authors are modern people, and two, the readers are modern people. It is very hard to write characters with completely different worldviews and morals and systems of thought, especially in a convincing way. I would know – I’ve tried to go to that extreme on several occasions, and those unfinished drafts sit as dusty curiosities in my writing folder. Historical fiction, though, demands that the characters be painted in a way that is at least somewhat true to their historical environs. The standards of the day, the little details in the way that issues of common humanity – death, justice, friendship, family, love – are considered, need to be expressed in a way that is historically true, and still approachable for a modern audience. The way they thought of medicine, for instance: Iggulden does a remarkable job of making procedures like bloodletting, that to a 21st century perspective sound completely irrational, sound like the only logical thing to do.
Where Iggulden’s books really tend to shine, and that is especially true of this series, is in the battles. They are detailed and realistic, without being gory. Instead, they provide a sense of the character of a battle, and the ways that weapons and technology and tactics were employed. These lessons, aside from being historically interesting, are of great value to anyone writing stories involving swords and armor. Just how well does armor protect you? How effective are early gunpowder-based weapons? What is it like to face archers in battle? How did knights compare to peasants and commoners?
Of course, as authors there are decisions to be made; the brutal hacking of real battles during this technological era does not always make for a great story, nor does the fact that most real duels would only last for maybe a minute or two. If you’re writing a Game of Thrones style fantasy, which is darker and grittier in its overall character, then these kinds of battles might be useful to leverage. If you’re writing something lighter in tone, then you may want to design your technology, your characters, or your magic system to explain why a sword battle would be an elegant, flowing thing that lasts for half an hour, instead of raw hacking at each other for twenty seconds.
Plotting is the other intriguing element. Although Iggulden does a fantastic job of making historical events make sense from the perspectives of those experiencing them, there are places where all of the “story elements” suggest a certain plot resolution, which then doesn’t happen. The biggest case of this for me was Richard III’s ascent to the throne after his brother’s death. Nothing in his personal history suggested he was likely to do so, at least in my reading of it, which is the general impression that seemed to be shared by the other characters in that part of the book. That kind of a plot twist, without sufficient foreshadowing or explanation, wouldn’t fly in a fantasy or science fiction novel, yet it would, perhaps, make it more true to how things go in reality.
This series really has two distinct parts, with the first two books having a different tone and character from the second two. In Stormbird and Margaret of Anjou, Lancaster is the dominant house, and although there are setbacks and struggles and rebellions, Margaret and her allies tend to come out on top. That changes with the rise of Edward and the house of York. I would called the first two books a story of Margaret of Anjou, while the second two books are primarily the story of the house of York and its time on the throne of England. They read differently, too: the first two are tighter, more focused on a smaller handful of characters, while the second two are bigger, with more viewpoint characters who are not made familiar to the reader in quite as much detail.
I am still partial to Iggulden’s series on Genghis Kahn, but this four book epic on the Wars of the Roses was well worth reading. Whether you’re interested in the history, the relationship with fantasy and its tropes, or simply in a well-told, fascinating story, I hope that you consider picking up these books soon.