Wars of the Roses: Stormbird
STORMBIRD, the first installment in Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series, begins with nearly 10 pages of maps and genealogies, which are followed by a prologue that takes place 66 years before the novel’s main action. It’s a lot of information, yes, but it’s not excessive. Iggulden, whose previous work includes two quintets on Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan, writes with a holistic view in mind, and all that supplemental material is necessary to his retelling of one of the most thrilling, tumultuous chapters in English history.
The year is 1443, and the young Henry VI sits on the English throne. Unfortunately, he is ill-suited for it. Derry Brewer, the king’s spymaster, has been ordered to broker a truce with France --- one that will give up a large portion of French territory won by King Henry’s warlike father only several decades earlier. Brewer’s friend, William, Earl of Suffolk, warns him that the English people will not be happy to give up land that they fought and died for, and Brewer agrees. However, he has his orders. In exchange for marriage to a French princess and 20 years of peace, King Henry VI of England will give up the territories of Anjou and Maine.
"It’s a testament to Iggulden’s aptitude for organization that STORMBIRD remains coherent, even as storylines are layered over and around each other, and careful readers will be able to see how he foreshadows events yet to come.... STORMBIRD is fun historical fiction, with juicy details and a propulsive plot."
Iggulden is a talented writer, and his ability to express multiple distinct voices is particularly impressive. When we are introduced to Margaret of Anjou, future bride of Henry VI (and consequently Queen of England), she is a convincingly immature 14-year-old girl. Richard of York is a grim, ruthless lord, simmering with resentment and envy. Thomas Woodchurch is an honorable yeoman, thrown back into battle against the same enemy he fought decades before. And Jack Cade, the bull-like Kentishman, is the angry father of a murdered son, intent on rebelling against King Henry’s unfair laws.
As STORMBIRD progresses, the main characters see their individual narratives interweave. Brewer escapes his enemy Richard of York on his way to secure Margaret of Anjou, but the latter winds up becoming a nemesis in her own right. Thomas Woodchurch fights his way out of France, only to continue fighting when he links up with Jack Cade’s London-bound rebellion. Indeed, Woodchurch fought alongside Cade at Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War, just like Derry Brewer, who is as intent on saving London as Cade is on burning it down.
It’s a testament to Iggulden’s aptitude for organization that STORMBIRD remains coherent, even as storylines are layered over and around each other, and careful readers will be able to see how he foreshadows events yet to come. When the young Earl of Warwick appears in the text as an insolent, headstrong teenager, it takes a moment to remember where we’ve seen his name before: 300 pages ago, on the York family tree. On that page, however, he is given the epithet by which history knows him today: “Kingmaker.”
STORMBIRD is not a genre-defying work of art. It doesn’t have the crossover potential of Ken Follet’s PILLARS OF THE EARTHor Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. It’s not aimed at readers of literary fiction, like Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL, or young adult readers, like M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. However, it doesn’t need to be. STORMBIRD is fun historical fiction, with juicy details and a propulsive plot. Iggulden plans to write two more books in the Wars of the Roses series, but I find myself hoping that he extends the total number to five.
Reviewed by Sam Glass on July 18, 2014