Theme Night: Richard III (The Fictional Version)

So. All of us history nerds GEEKED OUT over the whole Richard III thing today.

Shakespeare's Tragedy Richard III From The Old Globe

I don’t know who this is, but I prefer this version of Richard III.

Did I mentioned that I geeked out? It’s true. I really did.

Anyway, in poor maligned Richard III’s honor, and to halt my month-long blog drought, here are a few quick reviews of some recommended Wars of the Roses stories from my vast stores of historical fiction.

Not familiar with the Wars of the Roses? Stay tuned for some non-fiction reviews coming up next!

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The Reluctant Queen by Jean PlaidyThe Reluctant Queen by Jean Plaidy

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In 1470, a reluctant Lady Anne Neville is betrothed by her father, the politically ambitious Earl of Warwick, to Edward, Prince of Wales. A gentle yet fiercely intelligent woman, Anne has already given her heart to the prince’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Unable to oppose her father’s will, she finds herself in line for the throne of England—an obligation that she does not want. Yet fate intervenes when Edward is killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Anne suddenly finds herself free to marry the man she loves—and who loves her in return. The ceremony is held at Westminster Abbey, and the duke and duchess make a happy home at Middleham Castle, where both spent much of their childhood.

Their life is idyllic, until the reigning king dies and a whirlwind of dynastic maneuvering leads to his children being declared illegitimate. Richard inherits the throne as King Richard III, and Anne is crowned queen consort, a destiny she thought she had successfully avoided. Her husband’s reign lasts two years, two months, and two days—and in that short time Anne witnesses the true toll that wearing the crown takes on Richard, the last king from the House of York.

This is my favorite Anne and Richard book, and one of my many favorites by Plaidy. Her duchesses, princesses and queens stay in their appointed roles, but Plaidy somehow manages to really get into their heads and hearts to make her royal heroines quietly strong and even subversively influential.

Plaidy’s Anne of York is essentially passive, rarely taking an active role in any of the plotting and scheming that surrounds her. However, this background role allows her to be a very savvy observer, and Plaidy — with her effortless voice and flawless historical worldbuilding — makes the most of Anne’s omniscient narration.

Grade: A-

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The Kingmaker's Daughter by Philippa GregoryThe Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

Synopsis from Goodreads:

The Kingmaker’s Daughter is the gripping story of the daughters of the man known as the “Kingmaker,” Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick: the most powerful magnate in fifteenth-century England. Without a son and heir, he uses his daughters, Anne and Isabel as pawns in his political games, and they grow up to be influential players in their own right….

At the court of Edward IV and his beautiful queen, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne grows from a delightful child to become ever more fearful and desperate when her father makes war on his former friends. Married at age fourteen, she is soon left widowed and fatherless, her mother in sanctuary and her sister married to the enemy. Anne manages her own escape by marrying Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but her choice will set her on a collision course with the overwhelming power of the royal family and will cost the lives of those she loves most in the world, including her precious only son, Prince Edward. Ultimately, the kingmaker’s daughter will achieve her father’s greatest ambition.

I love Gregory’s “voice,” and she’s brilliant at using first-person POV (and even present tense in this one) to create a compelling and intensely personal atmosphere and a wholly unique perspective on true events.

But I think I’ve read way too many Tudor and Wars of the Roses books, because I found the narrative and especially the dialogue to be very repetitive in the second half.

The theme of “Elizabeth Woodville is a scheming, grasping witch” is used again and again and again as convenient filler whenever there’s downtime in the chronology of intrigue and poisonings and beheadings. So much emphasis is given to a virtually unseen character that the enigmatic Richard III is reduced to banal and emotionless cameo appearances.

Beyond that irritation, I think no author is better at depicting the constant uncertainty and fear and, ultimately, powerlessness that noble and royal women faced from the moment they moved from the nursery to the schoolroom. Like Mary and Anne Boleyn, the Neville sisters were born, trained and doomed to be nothing more than props and pawns in their father’s quest for power and glory.

Grade: B-

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Figures in Silk by Vanora BennettFigures in Silk by Vanora Bennett

Synopsis from Goodreads:

When silk merchant John Lambert marries off his two beautiful daughters, their fortunes are forever changed. Elder daughter Jane Shore begins a notorious liaison with the king while industrious and clever Isabel finds herself married into the house of Claver, a wealthy silk dynasty. Fate delivers Isabel a challenge when her new husband is killed and she is forced into apprenticeship to her mother-in-law, Alice Claver.

It is from Alice Claver that Isabel learns to love silk and the exotic and passionate fabrics from Italy, Persia, Spain, Tunisia, and beyond. Isabel learns to make her way in this new world of silk—to find friends and enemies—and she strikes an alliance with her sister’s lover, King Edward IV, that will bring the secrets of silk-making to London. As Isabel grows in power and her plan for a silk industry run by Englishwomen is set into motion, the political landscape shifts in dangerous ways. One sister will fall as the other rises and choices must be made that will change their lives forever.

The first half of the book, which focuses on the silk industry, is fascinating. Isabel is a memorable heroine, and her contentious relationships with her father, sister and mother-in-law set up several great conflicts.

However…the shark is jumped when R3 comes on the scene. The focus slides away from the strong female characters and gets bogged down in some ill-executed political intrigue.

The “kick-ass first half, disappointing second half” seems to be an ongoing issue with Bennett — she always manages to wrap up the storylines successfully, but I’d love to see her sustain the momentum from start to finish.

Grade: B-

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To the Tower Born by Robin MaxwellTo the Tower Born by Robin Maxwell

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In 1483, Edward and Richard of York — Edward, by law, already King of England–were placed, for their protection before Edward’s coronation, in the Tower of London by their uncle Richard. Within months the boys disappeared without a trace, and for the next five hundred years the despised Richard III was suspected of their heartless murders.

In To the Tower Born, Robin Maxwell ingeniously imagines what might have happened to the missing princes. The great and terrible events that shaped a kingdom are viewed through the eyes of quick-witted Nell Caxton, only daughter of the first English printer, and her dearest friend, “Bessie,” sister to the lost boys and ultimate founder of the Tudor dynasty. It is a thrilling story brimming with mystery, color, and historical lore. With great bravery and heart, two friends navigate a dark and treacherous medieval landscape rendered more perilous by the era’s scheming, ambitious, even murderous men and women who will stop at nothing to possess the throne.

Another shark-jumper, but in a good way.

Maxwell has a few, um, well, wacky revisionist history plots, but they’re nearly always entertaining, and she even (*gasp*) has fun with her historical characters.

I love, love, love Nell Caxton as the heroine, and the author gets buckets of extra special credit bonus points for making Anthony Woodville the love interest — I always wonder what he could have accomplished as a scholar and as a diplomat.  Word has it he was kinda cute too.

But, of course, Woodville (aka Earl Rivers) loses his head about a third of the way in, and Nell turns into a secret agent (or maybe a double-super-secret agent, it’s hard to tell) in an uber-suspenseful (and kinda wacky) conspiracy administered by Margaret Beaufort, the (probably literally) kick-ass  mother of Henry VII. It’s a wild ride, but it’s worth it.

Grade: B

2 thoughts on “Theme Night: Richard III (The Fictional Version)

  1. My favorite Richard III book has to be Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve re-read it. I’d forgotten the Plaidy book — I read so many of hers when I was younger that individual ones tend not to stick out.

  2. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s “We Speak No Treason” and Sharon Kay Penman’s “The Sunne in Splendour” are my favorites about Richard III
    And for a sweeping series set in the fifteenth century, all over Europe, Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo books.

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