July 10th, 2014

Review: Wars of the Roses: Stormbird (Wars of the Roses #1) by Conn Iggulden

Wars of the Roses: Stormbird
by Conn Iggulden

First book in Iggulden’s War of the Roses series

Gentle and pious, King Henry VI of England has the mild manner and desire for justice that ought to make him a good king. But he is born into a time of constant sparring with France. His father was the warrior Henry V who took great swathes of French land for the Crown, but instead of following in his footsteps the son negotiates a secret truce for peace. In exchange for marrying Margaret of Anjou and returning land to the French, Henry VI ends the constant fighting abroad only to stir up revolt on his own shores as his now-homeless subjects are forced to return to England after cultivating the fields of English-controlled France. As rebellion swirls amongst the peasants and rival claimants to the throne plot amongst the nobility, Henry slips into illness, plunging the kingdom into chaos and civil war.

I’ve read a lot of books set during the Wars of the Roses, so I’ve got the period and its major players down pretty well. If Conn Iggulden’s series is to be your first foray into the chaos, be prepared: it’s going to be pretty darn confusing. Apparently there were only a few names to choose from, so the story is peppered with Thomases, Edwards, Richards, Williams and Henrys. I didn’t think it was too bad in this first volume, but in subsequent books many of the great families will have children and grandchildren who share these names, and it will be a challenge to keep track of them all. Luckily, there are several family trees printed at the beginning of the book to help readers sort it all out.

Iggulden’s approach to the War of the Roses is a bit different from the other books I’ve read. This is the rare book that starts at the beginning of the action with Henry VI – every other book I’ve picked up set in this period begins story after Edward IV has become a serious rival. Edward isn’t even in this book – instead, it is his father upholding the name of York and accruing power unto his family. It’s also unusual in that Margaret of Anjou is a sympathetic, likeable character. Knowing that she would later be known as the “She-Wolf of France”, most writers tend to make her ferocious and ambitious. Perhaps one day she will evolve into that role, but at least in these early years, Iggulden paints her as kind and affectionate with her unstable husband.

Another thing that’s really fun about this series is that it showcases peasants nearly as often as it does the royal court. Thomas Woodchurch and Jack Cade, displaced peasants who lead a rebellion, are constantly in danger from French and English soldiers. Woodchurch is engaging because his reasons for fighting are universal: to protect his family, who lost their home in France because their king bargained away the land they lived on. Cade is a loudspoken and violent drunk who leads his men by brute force. It’s almost a pity, for Cade is the real historical figure and Woodchurch the fictional one – one wishes that Cade could be as well-rounded as his companion, but perhaps Iggulden wasn’t comfortable taking license with his personality.

As is the fashion with many writers of historical fiction, Iggulden plays fast and loose with historical events, bringing dead men to life and omitting others from key scenes. In a Historical Note at the end of the book, he explains the rationale behind many of his decisions. For a reader looking for a fast-paced adventure focused on the “men’s world” of war and fighting, the choices work very well.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about War of the Roses: Stormbird, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Chew Vol. 1 by John Layman and Rob Guillory
2012: Sailor Moon Vol. 4 by Naoko Takeuchi
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: Discussion Question: Favorite Book of 2010 (so far!)
2009: Discussion Question: Eating and Reading
2008: The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent