‘I remember Prince Hal, William! I remember the lion! Just ten more years and he’d have had the rest of France at his feet. Henry of Monmouth was my king, no other. God knows I would follow his son, but this boy is not his father. You know it. Instead of a lion of England, we have a dear white lamb to lead us in prayer.’
Stormbird is the first in Conn Iggulden’s War of the Roses series, and is set in the reign of Henry VI – the frail, gentle son of the famous war king, Henry V, who won against the odds at the battle of Agincourt. Prior to reading the novel I didn’t know a massive amount about the War of the Roses before the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III (which admittedly I only know about from Phillipa Gregory’s excellent Cousins’ War series!) and so it was pretty interesting to get Conn Iggulden’s take on the start of the war.
The novel is told in third person, but switches between various characters, most notably William de le Pole (the Duke of Suffolk and one of Henry VI’s closest advisors), Derry Brewer (the King’s spymaster and close advisor), Margaret of Anjou (a French princess who marries Henry VI), Thomas Woodchurch (an English archer living in France), Richard Plantagenet (Duke of York, Henry VI’s rival, and the eventual father of Edward IV and Richard III) and Jack Cade (a Kentish rebel).
The book opens with a prologue describing the death of Edward III, sixty-six years before the events of the book, and at first I didn’t really get the relevance. Later on it began to dawn on me that Edward III’s death could technically be seen as the start of the War of the Roses, as his many sons and their descendants are the cousins who are eventually at war for the throne of England in the War of the Roses (hence why this was the opening scene). The rest of the book covers the reign of Henry VI, who is desperate for peace with France (not being his father, who loved war), and so asks his advisors to arrange a marriage between himself and the French princess Margaret of Anjou in exchange for the English-French territories of Maine and Anjou. This treaty means that England loses a huge amount of land – land won by his father Henry V – and thousands of English families have to be evicted from their homes in Maine and Anjou. The decision proves unpopular, and rebellions begin to rise up, all the time watched with glee by the Duke of York and his supporters, who are plotting to take the throne for themselves.
I loved this book, as it had some really well written characters in it, and was exciting and fast paced. Iggulden has definitely shortened the time frame of events in the novel, but this kept it interesting, as the pace never lets off. There’s plenty of action (and quite a bit of gore!), and barely a dull moment (although I’ll get to those few dull moments in a minute!).
I particularly liked the characters of William de le Pole, Derry Brewer, Margaret of Anjou and Thomas Woodchurch. William is a very moral, honourable English nobleman, who is dedicated to serving his king, despite the fact he is far from an ideal ruler. Derry Brewer is totally different, being tough, resourceful, and ruthless, and it’s perhaps the two men’s differences that make their friendship so unlikely, and all the more heart-warming.
Margaret of Anjou was also a brilliant character. Historically, she is known as a strong, powerful woman for having ruled England whilst Henry VI was in a near catatonic state, and for leading the Lancastrian forces in war against the Yorkists. In Iggulden’s novel, whilst she is indeed a very strong character, she is not as I expected before reading the book. ‘Strong’ female characters in historical fiction often tend to be portrayed as cold, commanding or conniving (I’m thinking particularly of a lot of depictions of Anne Boleyn I have come across) but Iggulden’s Margaret of Anjou is for the most part quite a kind, gentle character, with a genuine fondness for her husband, and a close friendship with William de le Pole. Her strength is therefore more of a quiet strength: she is calm and collected in the face of danger, and highly intelligent, making difficult decisions on behalf of her husband when necessary. I also liked that her strength of character is something that develops in her throughout the novel. When you first meet her as a fourteen year old girl she is hiding from her brothers, and is often being bossed around by her father. However, when she becomes Queen of England she seems to come into her own, and has to rule in her husband’s stead when he is ill.
I also liked Thomas Woodchurch, an English farmer (and former archer) in Maine who is forced off his land when the French army arrives to take back France’s new territory. He and his son stay and fight for their land, before returning to England and joining Jack Cade’s rebellion. I think Jack Cade was the only main character I didn’t really like. Up until Thomas Woodchurch joins him towards the end of the novel, I found his sections a little boring. In fact he was responsible for all those infrequent dull moments I was talking about!
Richard Plantagenet (the Duke of York) was also a pretty unlikable character, but not in a bad way (if that makes sense!). Whilst the character could have easily been made into some kind of stereotypical cackling villain, plotting to overthrow the King, Iggulden was more subtle. Although York is suspected of having a hand in a lot of the bad things that happen in the novel, nothing is ever proven, and it is uncertain just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. In a lot of cases he seems to just sit back and watch as things fall apart; for example, when the French start to drive the English out of Maine and Anjou, things get heated, but he doesn’t step in, despite being in charge of the English forces in Calais. Things definitely seem to tip in his favour as the novel progresses, with Henry VI’s failed treaty with France losing him a lot of supporters.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, and particularly liked Conn Iggulden’s writing style, and fresh take on the War of the Roses. I like that he decided to start the series off with a part of the war that is perhaps lesser known, with the weak-willed Henry VI beginning to lose his hold on the throne of England. The only thing I didn’t like were some of Jack Cade’s early sections, as I found them a little boring. Although I think this was just because I didn’t really like the character of Jack Cade as much as some of the others. I also don’t think the book can quite match Hilary Mantel’s amazing Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, but it was still a pretty riveting piece of historical fiction!