With over 900 pages this historical fiction novel of the reign of Edward IV and Richard III is by far the longest historical fiction book I have ever read! I picked this up thinking I would be reading mainly about Richard III. However, this novel is also about Richard’s brother King Edward and Richard’s relationship with him in the years before Richard assumes the crown.
From the very first pages the reader’s interest and sympathy is engaged with young Richard, of the house of York, in the War of the Roses as his father and brother Edmund are killed. The author portrays Marguerite d’Anjou as merciless and self-seeking as she seeks to save the crown of England for her Lancaster son Edouard. Richard is just a boy of seven who is sent away along with his brother George for safety.
“He thought of the dawning day with dread. On the morrow, there was to be a battle. Men were to die, for reasons he did not fully understand. But he did understand, with chilling clarity, that when the day was done, his father and Ned and Edmund might be numbered among the dead… He began to build up the army of York until it vastly outnumbered Lancaster. He knew his father did not want to fight the King, and he did not think the King truly wanted to fight his father… but the Queen had no such qualms.”
Richard has a lot of growing up to do, and this portrayal of his character is partly an attempt to correct the misapprehensions of history. One cannot read this book without coming to admire his character and reluctance to show vengeance to the many who betray him over the years. His brother King Edward is much more of a realist and lives his short life not only indulging in pleasure but also as a seasoned warrior on the battlefield.
“I was taught from boyhood to believe that justice does not prosper without mercy, Francis. My brother thought not, warned me once that mercy was an indulgence no King could truly afford. And he was right. The Stanleys, Archbishop Rotherham, Reginald Bray, John Cheyney… All men now backing this Welsh rebel, all men whose treachery I did overlook. Had I chosen to punish rather than pardon, had I executed them as I did the Woodvilles, we’d not have come to this… to Redmore Plain.”
There are a lot of characters to keep straight in this lengthy book, and a lot of uprisings, intrigues and viewpoints from various characters. The middle of the book, which tells of the romance between Richard and his eventual wife Anne, seemed to drag for me, but most of the book moved fast, even for 900+ pages! I had known already about Richard and the treachery of his end on the field at Bosworth but this book brought his story to life for me and has piqued my interest in learning more of this period of history.
Richard and Edward’s mother, Cecily of Neville, is truly a tragic figure but her character also is much to be admired. In later years she handles her grief over her many losses by turning to faith and piety:
“Cecily’s voice had thickened; she drew a deeper shuddering breath, at least said, “God does sometimes act to test our faith, in ways we cannot hope to understand. Did not Satan say to the Lord of Job, “Put forth Thy hand now and touch all he has and he will curse Thee to Thy face,” and the Lord did reply to Satan, “Behold, all that he has in is your power,’ and Job did suffer greatly, did lose his family and his health, had to lose all to find anew his faith in the Almighty.”
Richard is greatly tested when he loses the love of his life, his wife Anne, to consumption.
“Richard listen, … I feel very close to God, in a way I never felt before, as if He’s with me now… just like Ned. And I know – I truly do know – that the Almighty be not a jealous God at all, but one of forgiveness. Does not Scriptures say the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, and saveth in time of affliction? My darling, if only I could help you to see that… Richard, promise me you’ll try to believe that, to believe in God’s love, God’s forgiveness.”
The author writes:
“Wherever possible, I tried to portray my characters in accordance with their historical counterparts. This was relatively easy for Richard, Edward, and so forth. But other characters, especially women, were not “captured” by any medieval pen; we know nothing about them beyond the stark outline of their lives, and I had to rely upon my imagination to give them dimension… One disadvantage in writing of people who really existed is that the blueprints of their lives are already laid out. As a result, I occasionally found it necessary to ‘interpret’ behavior that only a man or woman long since dead could properly explain.”