History rarely presents a neat narrative, and the Wars of the Roses are about as messy as it gets. Multiple royal houses battling for the throne of England in the 15th century; social unrest caused in part by the hardships imposed by the Hundred Years’ War; buckets of Richards and Henrys to keep track of—it’s a hell of a jumble.
But the bloody, backstabbing complexity offers excellent source material for storytellers up to the challenge of sorting through it; George R. R. Martin mined the period for inspiration while planning his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (commonly known by the title of its first entry, A Game of Thrones). Conn Iggulden sets himself a tougher task by attempting a historical-fiction version, which he begins with Wars of the Roses: Stormbird.
Stormbird starts slowly, largely because Iggulden sets his prologue in 1377, 66 years before the main events of the story. We see Edward III on his deathbed and hear his attending sons drop hints about the coming succession crisis. Historically speaking, this may well be the proper point to begin unraveling the threads, but it makes for a choppy opening once Iggulden skips ahead to 1443 and leaves behind the characters we just began to know.
The story picks up as Iggulden portrays the machinations behind a secret truce between Henry VI, the current King of England, and Charles VII, King of France and Henry’s uncle. In exchange for peace and a bride, Henry quietly relinquishes his claim to the provinces of Maine and Anjou, French territories captured by his predecessors during earlier stages of the Hundred Years' War. The catch: English families living in Maine and Anjou have to leave their homes. Many refuse, and bitter fighting in Maine eventually destroys the peace.
To explain how Henry, a mentally infirm ruler, brokered such a deal, Iggulden invents a calculating spymaster, Derry Brewer. Iggulden also creates an archer, Thomas Woodchurch, who leads the resistance in Maine before joining Jack Cade’s peasant rebellion in England. Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s French bride, features as well, as do other scheming nobles, such as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and aspirant to Henry’s throne.
In other words, there’s a lot going on.
But Iggulden directs the chaos skillfully, managing to make us root for several members of the upper and lower classes rather than a single, central protagonist. I occasionally tripped over Iggulden’s use of third-person omniscient, however—he mostly sticks with one point of view per scene, but sometimes hops in and out of another character’s head; I would have preferred an entirely fixed camera or one that roamed more consistently. I also thought the torturing and execution of a Jewish moneylender was an unnecessary tangent.
Even so, I liked Stormbird on balance, and I’m curious to see how Iggulden navigates the rest of the Wars of the Roses now that he’s set them up so entertainingly.
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