A Dangerous Inheritance – Alison Weir

A Dangerous Inheritance - Alison Weir

Published: 2013 (paperback), Arrow Books, 509 pages
Historical fiction

Setting the scene

Edward IV’s two young princes are in line for his throne. Yet, following the King’s sudden death in 1483, it is his brother, Richard, who is crowned King.

Did Richard III conspire to usurp the throne from his nephews the princes? What happened to the princes who, lodged in the Tower of London, were then never to be seen again?

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Richard III’s illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet, is disturbed by rumours of her father’s involvement in the disappearance of the princes. Eighty years later, their fate also haunts Lady Katherine Grey who feels compelled to investigate the mystery for her own reasons.

Through perilous investigations, can either of these young women come close to revealing the truth behind the mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’?

Review

Living decades apart, the lives of Katherine ‘Kate’ Plantagenet and Katherine Grey share several tragic similarities. Both young women experience the danger that comes with being royal and both are driven by an instinctual yearning to uncover the truth behind the mystery of the princes.

Kate Plantagenet’s experiences are recounted in third-person beginning in 1483 with news of King Edward IV’s death. She finds herself swept up in political turmoil when her father – the late king’s brother and Lord Protector to his sons and heirs – is controversially proclaimed king, after which no one sees the princes again.

Speculation mounts around whether King Richard, considered by many a usurper, had his nephews ‘done away with’ in order to secure his throne. Kate is naturally drawn to support her father whom she loves dearly, though gradually even she finds doubts creeping into her thoughts.

Whilst the mystery has a more immediate bearing on Kate, decades later, Katherine Grey is equally compelled by it. Initially examining the mystery because of an affinity she feels for Kate after seeing her portrait, she later has a child and finds her motherly instinct absorbs her further into it.

Katherine Grey’s tale, narrated in first-person, begins in 1553 when her sister, Jane, is declared Queen. Jane, a devoted Protestant, is a reluctant Queen who rules for only nine days before support for the Catholic Mary Tudor challenges her rule. Jane is overthrown, imprisoned and later executed for treason. So, before Katherine is yet thirteen, she has tragic experience of the complexity of having royal blood, and unfortunately for Katherine this is only the beginning. Whilst naïve and impulsive, she is a character we sympathise with throughout her turmoil.

A Dangerous Inheritance - Alison Weir

Both young women are rendered pawns in a game of ambition and alliances. They and their kin suffer tragedy at the hands of those who oppose them and the threat posed by their dangerous inheritance: their royal blood.

However, the novel seems as much an examination of the heroine’s love lives as it is the mystery of the princes. Given their royal blood and import in making alliances, both Katherines find themselves prohibited from having that which they truly desire- the man they love, rather than a man who would be an advantageous match. This is hardly surprising for the time, though Kate is particularly harshly used to make a good alliance and Katherine is cruelly denied marriage, despite their – somewhat dangerously – clear feelings for the men they love.

The tales of Kate and Katherine could easily have been split into two separate books. The interweaving of their stories seems to be reliant on a ‘supernatural’ element which is a little tenuous (Katherine feels drawn to a portrait of Kate, experiences dreams of her and strange moments of terror when wearing Kate’s old pendant). The stories of Kate and Katherine are also interesting enough as they are, they do not need an added supernatural element.

Overall

Would I recommend this book? Yes, to anyone with an interest in this era.
★★★☆☆

The novel is very well-written, presenting the intricacies of court life with historical authenticity and induced me to shed a tear at one heart-breaking moment. It will excite the curiosity of anyone interested in this era as Katherine Plantagenet, a figure we know so little about, is rarely presented as vividly as Weir brings her to life.

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The Master of Bruges – Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges - Terence Morgan

Published: 2010 (hardback), Macmillan New Writing, 313 pages
Historical fiction

Setting the scene

The fortunes of journeyman painter, Hans Memling, change entirely when a humble sketch provides him with an unforeseen lifeline.

The small sketch, an un-commissioned likeness of the Princess of Burgundy, serves a part in sparing Memling’s life at war and salvaging him from impoverishment.

Newfound prosperity is accompanied by striking connections with powerful political figures. But Memling’s connections lead him far beyond Belgium and right into the very heart of civil-war wounded England.

Here, in Plantagenet England, Memling’s life takes a turn for the even more unexpected. Entangled in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, tragedy and political turmoil surrounding him, Memling plays a surprising role in one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Review

‘Not all of the painting needs to be confined to the frame.
The truth sometimes lies outside’. 

This is a multi-themed novel about love, art and the tumultuous politics of the Wars of the Roses, all with an underlying emphasis on truth.

Written in the first-person retrospective narrative of Hans Memling, fifteenth century painter, we are treated to a story of ambiguous romance juxtaposed with a fresh, original outlook on over three decades worth of historical events and figures from the late middle ages (spanning 1460 to 1494).

The novel is split into two main parts. The first part of the novel begins in 1460 and centres around the Burgundian court and Memling’s burgeoning career as a painter in Bruges. Memling tells of his acquaintance with Charles, Duke of Burgundy, having sketched his beautiful daughter some years earlier, a sketch most precious to Charles. We read of the prospects this association provides Memling and of his equivocal relationship with the Duke’s daughter, Princess Marie.

The second part of the novel contrasts significantly to the first. Memling is invited to England by Sir John Donne (who in reality commissioned Memling to paint a triptych for him) and in 1482 we are transported from Bruges into the midst of Plantagenet England. Here, Memling’s eyes provide the reader with remarkable access to the English royal court. We closely witness the personal and political motivations behind the reigns of three English monarchs: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III and hear of Henry Tudor’s endeavour to claim the thrown.

The Master of Bruges - Terence Morgan

Interspersed throughout the novel and detached from the narrative of events, are short chapters in which Memling contemplates the craftsmanship of painting. These thoughtful chapters show the author’s passion for Memling’s work and provide a continuous theme from start to end. They consequently ensure that the second part of the novel – where Memling, ‘artist to the great’, seems to become Memling, ‘confidant to the great’ – isn’t too far removed from the first part.

Some scenes are very well handled, such as the search for a particular casualty in the aftermath of the Battle of Nancy (France, 1477). A later death in the novel is also noticeably beautifully handled and is a highlight of the book- though it would spoil the plot and interesting twist to mention more. The novel would perhaps have benefited from more description, for example in the battle scene there is room for a bit more ‘gruesomeness’, though being written almost in diary form it is understandable that this is not the case.

It is also interesting to note that the novel is very sympathetic to Richard III. Richard III has traditionally been villainised through history, being accused of infanticide and considered essentially a throne-snatcher. Morgan uses the artistic license that comes with historical fiction to offer an absorbing, alternative theory of events surrounding Richard’s route to kingship.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★☆☆

Morgan’s debut novel is a smart, interesting read with a good pace. It is well written, presenting a convincing narrative voice which is at times comedic. It is also pleasingly well-researched, incorporating many of the key events of the time, including the introduction of printing set up by William Caxton, a character Morgan weaves imaginatively into the novel.

If approaching this book without prior knowledge of Memling and his artwork, you will finish with an instilled interest in his work and an understanding of the context that goes with it.

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The White Queen – Philippa Gregory (& BBC TV adaptation)

The White Queen - Philippa Gregory

Published: 2009, Simon & Schuster, paperback, 409 pages
Book 1 of ‘The Cousins’ Wars’ Series, historical fiction

Setting the scene

It is 1464 in a divided medieval England. Civil war rages between two rival houses, both with claim to the throne: York and Lancaster.

Three years after overthrowing the Lancastrian king, the Yorkist Edward IV still endeavours to establish his rule as rightful king against opposition from the rival house.

A not-so-chance meeting results in a surprising marriage between this York king and a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville. The two are sent spiralling down a tumultuous path, a bloody path of unrest and betrayal with opposition escalating treacherously close to home.

Just how far can Elizabeth go to protect her family and their rise to power? Does a mother’s resolute ambition ultimately compromise the safety of her children?

Review

The novel is written in the first-person narrative of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen of the title. Typically victimised through history, Gregory ventured to do Elizabeth justice by acknowledging the strength and determination she upheld throughout the difficulties she faced, and she certainly faced her fair share.

We follow Elizabeth down a rollercoaster of a journey, from her humble beginnings to the testing and unstable life she leads as Queen consort to Edward IV. She encounters disloyalty, charges of witchcraft and bastardy, the execution of many close to her and the mysterious disappearance of her two princes in the Tower of London. All that barely scratches the surface of the challenges she faces.

It is easy to determine that Elizabeth is a strong and formidable female and for the large part she is a character we sympathise with. However, I nonetheless found her difficult to warm to, especially as we are introduced to her as a woman who deliberately uses her beauty to ensnare the king’s attention. Her ruthless ambition also becomes a little irksome towards the end of the novel and I was grateful for scenes where she is depicted spending time with her young children, as they make her a rounded character, not solely a power-hungry beauty.

The White Queen - Philippa Gregory

Entwined within this novel of political dispute and military action is an unexpected subplot surrounding an ancient legend. The legend of the water-goddess Melusina, who is half-woman and half-serpent or fish, is recognisable nowadays through its retelling as the Little Mermaid. In the novel, Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, believes that she descends from Melusina and we see her and Elizabeth performing enchantments throughout. The legend is a surprising and enjoyable element in the novel.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel is Gregory’s inclusion of a poem written by Anthony Woodville, Elizabeth’s beloved brother. I thought it was beautiful when I found out that it is the actual poem Anthony, in reality, wrote the night before his death. This is touching because Anthony is such a warm character and it also brings home the fact that this is based on real people and largely real events.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★☆☆(3.5)

Gregory’s writing style is easy and informative though slightly too romanticised for my liking. She manages to keep the reader’s head above water in what could have been an all-too complex plot of political tug-of-war.

Gregory set out to bring history to life and she has succeeded in doing so.

TV series

BBC TV 10-part adaptation: BBC One, Sundays, 9pm
(First episode broadcast 16 June 2013, US: 10 August 2013)

The TV adaptation has been criticised for its historical implausibility; despite this, I am enjoying the series. The first episode is impressively faithful to the novel and I particularly like the casting of Max Irons – The Host (2013) – as Edward IV. Irons comes across as charming and amiable, just as Edward IV is in the novel and is recorded to have been in history.

The series is more romanticised than the novel, though this is often the case when trying to draw in viewership. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of it unfolds.

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World Without End – Ken Follett

World Without End - Ken Follett

Published: 2007, Macmillan, hardback, 1,111 pages
Historical, romance fiction

Setting the scene

King Edward II is dead. His son, Edward III, takes the throne to become King of England, as speculation mounts around his father’s death.

A knight flees to the town of Kingsbridge armed with a sword, a dagger and, perhaps most dangerous of all, a letter. The letter is buried, though its unspecified secret hangs over the novel.

The arrival of the knight brings together four children sworn to secrecy: Caris, Gwenda, and brothers Merthin and Ralph. Over the next three decades their diverse paths remain entwined as each fight for their desires and aspirations amidst injustice and corruption and all against a backdrop of war.

Review

It is the mark of a great storyteller to be able to grip you through 1,111 pages of evidently well-informed, historical drama. Follett masterfully balances the grim realities of the late middle ages – namely, the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the Black Death, a plague the likes of which had never been seen before – with fictional tales of love and torment in the lives of enchantingly ordinary, believably fallible characters.

The novel convincingly depicts life at the time, from clothing to politics, to new ideas conflicting with stubborn traditions and religious opposition, and poignant scenes of despair and anarchy brought on by the the Black Death. This is a novel anyone can enjoy regardless of whether they have prior interest in the era because, despite its persuasive treatment of life at the time, the backbone of the novel is essentially the heartrending love story of Merthin and Caris.

The novel spans over three decades from 1327 to 1361 and follows several plot-lines, predominantly surrounding the lives of the four central characters: Caris, an independent woman ahead of her time; Merthin, an honest romantic and genius architect; Gwenda, a savvy, head-strong peasant and Ralph, a brute, unscrupulously climbing the ranks of nobility.

World Without End - Ken Follett

However, the novel has a whole plethora of secondary characters who are equally brilliantly rounded. From the hardworking merchants and the tavern-dwelling townspeople of Kingsbridge, to the struggling peasantry of the surrounding villages and the calculating monks of the Priory, Follett’s skilful characterisation provides the finest feature of the novel. Gwenda is a particularly endearing character, whose unfortunate circumstances leaving you longing for some change in her fortune. Other characters are so corrupt they are contemptible.

Follett’s writing style is relatively informal and easy to read and he has the art of using short sentences to create tension down to a tee. However, we are regularly presented with strikingly descriptive narrative when it comes to Merthin’s architectural commissions. This reflects Follett’s self-confessed interest in cathedrals and, whilst it is admittedly tempting to gloss over at first, you soon realise that the inclusion of such detail-heavy explanations only adds to the vivid presentation of 14th-century life that the novel upholds.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★★★

This colossal novel deservedly earns the title of ‘epic’; despite its size, which could be seen as a negative, it doesn’t for one moment feel like an effort to reach the end and instead it is one to truly lose yourself in. This is thanks to Follett’s skilful characterisation and thrilling plot of love, hate, corruption and obsession.

World Without End is a must-read historical thriller.

World Without End - Ken Follett

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