Maybe it’s because Herodotus is so aptly referred to as “history’s screenwriter,” but I was less impressed by Iggulden’s interpretation of the events in The Gates of Athens than I was with his interpretation of Xenophon’s adventures. Where the story he told of Xenophon’s exploits was very faithful to the history, The Gates of Athens seemed to include a lot more supposition on Iggulden’s part, mostly to add interpersonal drama. Yet he is telling a story about some of the most dramatic moments in recorded history, and I wonder if added drama is really necessary.
The Abbot’s Tale, though, is something different, and in this Iggulden is serving more as a translator than a writer, or even a researcher. It is drawn almost entirely from a surviving manuscript written by Dunstan, a tenth century English monk, and the titular protagonist of The Abbot’s Tale. That manuscript is a sort of memoir or maybe a personal confessional, and it is clear that the original author never intended for it to be read, or even to survive.
I've actually read this part before, but decided to re-read it in light of my recent reading of Herodotus's Histories, which covered the period about a hundred years or so before the events in The Ten Thousand, and provided a lot of valuable context for understanding what was happening in Xenophon's story. Unlike Herodotus, Xenophon is not writing about history in The Ten Thousand; he is writing a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to him and his companions during a campaign as mercenaries in a decidedly short-lived Persian civil war. Like Caesar in his Commentaries, Xenophon refers to himself in the third person, and the result is perhaps the most story-like and modern-seeming of all the ancient works that I've been reading recently. In fact, Conn Iggulden wrote a historical fiction novella primarily based upon the events in The Ten Thousand, and it was a very interesting experience to read that having already read its primary source.
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.
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.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the writing of Iggulden's Wars of the Roses historical fiction series is how, while the POV character switches frequently within each book, each novel seems to focus on a different character for its primary storyline, the character with whom the reader is meant to sympathize. In the first book, it was Margaret of Anjou. In the second book, it transitioned to York, particularly King Edward. With the third book, the series began to transition its focus to Earl Warwick, Richard Neville.
As I was reading this book, I was wrestling with a confusion that had nothing to do with its contents, and which I should seek to clarify. This book, sold in the US as Margaret of Anjou, is the same book as Trinity, the title under which it is sold in the UK. And now that we have that exceedingly minor point of confusion cleared up, we can get on with the rest of the review.
What is the modern fantasy genre may arguably be said to have been derived from historical fiction. After all, much of classical fantasy was derived from the myths and legends of times gone by, and for a long time (arguably to this day), fantasy was significantly stuck in twelfth century Europe. The genre has since expanded far beyond those historical beginnings, with subgenres like alternative world fantasy that are set in completely different universes, with their own laws of physics, and with characters that sometimes aren't human at all. However, given that heritage, it perhaps should not be terribly surprising that a historical fiction novel about the Wars of the Roses would read more like fantasy than anything else.
At this point, I'm going to assume that you've already read my reviews for Checkmate and The Ringed Castle, so you should know that this review is going to talk about things like how beautiful Dorothy Dunnett's writing is, how fascinating her tragic antihero is, and how seamlessly the historical context and geopolitical maneuvering is blended with the fictional story of Sir Francis Crawford comte de Lymond and Seveigny, because those characteristics were not unique to the final two books; they were the defining traits of the entire series. One day, I'll have been doing this site long enough that I won't have to shoehorn in reviews of the previous books in the series that I read before the site was up when I do these series reviews, but that isn't today.
It's always a little bittersweet to come to the end of a series, especially if its one in which you grew truly fond of the characters. Plus, the end of a series is where all of the questions are answered and the open story-lines are tied up in some fashion, so the final book in a series can in many cases make or break the entire series. Getting the endings right is at least as important as getting the beginnings right. Did Checkmate give a great ending to a great series? Yes, yes it did.