As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this month’s column, battling kings and their comrades lead me down a winding path.
Iggulden, Conn. Stormbird. Putnam. (Wars of the Roses). 2014. 496p. ISBN 9780399165368. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101622940. HISTORICAL FICTION
Historical and military fiction blend seamlessly in Iggulden’s account of the Wars of the Roses, the vicious struggle for the English throne during the 15th century (the novel is the first in a planned trilogy). On one side of the power struggle, Richard, Duke of York, eyes the crown, currently held by the weak and vague King Henry VI. On the other side is the king’s intriguing fictional court spy Derry Brewer, who sets his will and clever mind against York. As fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones well know, when a kingdom is in play, everything has its cost—even winning. Iggulden makes this abundantly clear in his detailed and muscular version of the wars, as violence and gore shadow complex political games. His expansive and interwoven plot unfolds at a compulsive pace as he draws vivid portraits of both historical and fictional characters. York is opportune and vicious; Brewer is arrogant and winning; Margaret, Henry’s young, smart, and valiant wife, could hold her own in a Philippa Gregory novel; and Thomas Woodchurch, an ex-soldier caught in the backlash of Brewer’s central plot, is noble, strong, and compelling. Richly set and vividly realized, Iggulden’s opening account of the long-waged battle for England’s crown is engrossing and deftly achieved.
Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt. Harper Perennial. 2009. 512p. ISBN 9780061578908. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061984068. HISTORICAL FICTION
Early in Iggulden’s novel, one of the characters pines for a king like Henry V and for battles like Agincourt. Readers of Stormbird may similarly want to consider this lushly wrought account of that most famous of medieval battles as Cornwell is a sure-bet suggestion for Iggulden fans. The authors share a similar focus on the details of war, a striking intimacy of character, and the same saturated sense of place and time. Tracing the run up to the battle (and then the carnage itself) through the fictional figure of Nicholas Hook, Cornwell captures the violence and cost of war in the figure of the heroic longbow archer—a man who uses his wits, skill, and honor to carve his way through personal vendettas and nation-state battles. Nicholas is forced to join the army after attacking a priest and while defending an English position in France rescues and then falls in love with Melisande. Together they weather the maelstrom of the powerful and vicious as they are inexorably drawn toward a battle that will decide the fate not just of countries but their own as well.
Donald, Angus. Outlaw. Griffin: St. Martin’s. (Outlaw Chronicles, Bk. 1). 2011. 352p. ISBN 9780312678364. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429960670. HISTORICAL FICTION
Readers who enjoy the way Iggulden mixes fictional characters with historical figures and places both in a detailed landscape may enjoy Donald’s gritty series recounting the adventures of Robin Hood. The action-packed novels share with Stormbird the twists and turns that come from dynastic power plays and a vivid evocation of time and place. The series (currently four titles strong) begins with the fierce adventures of Robin Hood as he battles the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, the evil Sir Ralph Murdac. This is not the Disney version of the charming folk hero serving the poor, complete with a minstrel singing a catchy tune, though Friar Tuck, Little John, and Will Scarlet are all present, as is a kind of minstrel—a young thief named Alan Dale. Dale becomes apprenticed to the outlawed earl and tells the story of Robin’s violent clashes with the sheriff. The series quickly turns from a story of Robin and his band of brutal men to the continuing quests of Richard the Lionheart, as Robin joins his king and they go on crusade, restore Richard to his throne, and battle with France.
Willocks, Tim. The Religion. Tor. (Tannhauser, Bk. 1). 2008. 688p. ISBN 9780765357557. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429934947. HISTORICAL FICTION
Another book of war and history is Willocks’s story of the 1565 Turkish siege of the Christian stronghold of Malta, home of the Knights of Saint John the Baptist. The epic and violent tale shares with Stormbird a similar sense of history-altering scope, a focus on vivid settings, and an engrossing pace. Both novels are also full of violence and are intricately plotted, making Willocks a solid suggestion for Iggulden fans. The novel features Mattias Tannhauser, an adventurer and sword-for-hire, who finds himself entangled in the fate of Carla la Penautier, a beautiful French countess searching for her son who is imperiled by the siege. Able, sure, cocky, and brave, Tannhauser and his companions set forth and find themselves in more difficulties than just the opposing sides can generate. Carla is a complication in and of herself, and there is a vicious monk inquisitor on a mission to foil her plans and any Tannhauser might make. Additionally, once within the besieged city, Tannhauser has little choice but to try to aid its inhabitants, all of whom must face down the invading army at their gates or die.
Meyer, G.J. The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty. Random. 2011. 656p. ISBN 9780385340779. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780440339144. HIST
The first Tudor king, Henry VII, ended the Wars of the Roses by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and marrying Elizabeth York, the daughter of Edward IV (and Richard III’s own niece). The history of the Tudors is as complicated and fascinating as that of the York and Lancaster families (which is no surprise as the blood of both sides runs through their veins). If Iggulden’s novel leaves your readers wanting more tales concerning dynastic families, political intrigue, and the English monarchy, then they might enjoy this highly accessible mix of biography, history, and culture. Meyer forgoes the straightforward chronicle, from Henry VII to Elizabeth, and instead tells the stories of kings, queens, courtiers, and schemers from a perspective that blends the most enthralling aspects of their lives with the history of the age. It makes for gripping reading and allows Meyer’s talents as a storyteller to shine. His expertise as a historian never takes a backseat, however, and in addition to the history of the Tudor family, Meyer inserts fascinating background chapters into the dynastic story that make the Tudor world approachable and vivid.
Weir, Alison. The Wars of the Roses. Ballantine. 1996. 496p. ISBN 9780345404336. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780307806857. HIST
Perhaps the most well-known and respected history on the wars waged by the Lancaster and York families is this detailed, authoritative, and compelling work on the dynastic battles that began in 1455 and raged intermittently for more than 30 years. The seeds of the battles were sown during the reign of Edward III (which is also the beginning of Stormbird) and ultimately led to the rise of the Tudor dynasty and the reign of Henry VIII. During that span of time multiple kings would fall and the last King of England to win his crown in battle would found a new dynasty. While Weir’s work is not a title to suggest to those wanting a simple overview of the wars, it will please readers seeking a masterfully told and richly evoked account of the era and its central figures—from kings to rioters, from magnates to queens. Weir is exacting, elegant, and descriptive as she puts flesh on the bones of a complicated family tree. She brings the remote facts of history into full focus, crafting elaborate characterizations and evoking the landscape as well as the pageantry, intrigue, and brutality of the period. Dan Jones’s The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors (out this October from Viking) would also make a strong suggestion for Iggulden’s readers.
Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season. 561 min. 2012. DVD UPC 883929268757.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season. 550 min. 2013. DVD UPC 883929242993.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Third Season. 550 min. 2014. DVD UPC 883929330713.
ea. vol: 5 discs. color. HBO Studios. $59.99. HISTORICAL DRAMA/TV
Of the many influences that shape George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books, Martin has claimed that the Wars of the Roses provide some of its historical framework. Readers of Iggulden who want to extend their viewing experience beyond the direct parallels of The White Queen may find the HBO blockbuster series a fine next viewing experience. It is a violent, grand, and detailed extravaganza (filled with dragons, giants, and other mythical creatures) that recounts a complicated and multifront battle for a throne. There are various houses vying for the kingdom and just as many colluding with the powerful. The central figures featured in the four seasons aired thus far, however, are the Houses of Lannister, Stark, Baratheon, and Targaryen. While the Lannisters hold the crown, both a Targaryen queen and a brother of the late king threaten their grip. Atmospheric, episodically paced, and character-rich, the series has very high production values and stunning sets and costumes. It also spares little in terms of the boundaries it will push, and thus the violence, sex, and deaths pile up episode after episode.
The White Queen. 3 discs. color. 580 min. Anchor Bay. 2014. DVD UPC 013132614113. $49.98. HISTORICAL DRAMA/TV
The complicated family tree of the many kings, queens, and combatants in the Wars of the Roses can be hard to follow. Watching the Starz TV series (a series originally created by the BBC) may help Iggulden fans navigate the complexities. It is based on the beloved Philippa Gregory saga “The Cousins’ War.” While the TV series primarily focuses on the women of the era (centrally Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and Anne Neville), it tracks the twists and turns of the political schemes and the many battles in lush detail. Notable for its costumes, settings, and sex, the show is not historically rigorous, but it does offer viewers the pleasures of a glitzy soap opera combined with the charms of a period drama. The ten-episode series is heavily story-based, but it is the characters that make it all work. Warwick (an ally of Richard, Duke of York) is sly and one can see his frustration at finding himself outplayed by those far less intelligent. Elizabeth is pure seduction, and her mother, Jacquetta, is a witchy force of nature. Margaret is mad in her quest to see her son (the eventual King Henry VII) on the throne. Anne (daughter of Warwick, Queen of England, and wife to the infamous Richard III) is at first all but broken by the gale force of the times but comes into her own through trauma and grit.