On a cold winter’s morning in 1460, a band of armed horsemen approach the Priory of St Mary near Lincoln. One of the monks, Thomas Everingham, is outside the priory walls that morning, having been sent out to kill a fox that has been caught in a trap, and when he notices that the soldiers are about to attack two nuns (one of whom is Sister Katherine, a young woman who has spent most of her life in the priory) he decides to intervene. In the scuffle that follows, Thomas seriously injures one of the men, who happens to be the son of the nobleman Sir Giles Riven. With the furious Sir Giles seeking revenge, Thomas and Katherine (disguised as a boy called Kit) are forced to flee the priory.
After living for so many years in their isolated religious community, Thomas and Katherine have little knowledge of the world beyond and are surprised to find that England is in the midst of war. Henry VI is still on the throne but is under threat from the Duke of York and Earl of Warwick, whose armies are gathering in Calais in preparation for the next stage of what will become known as the Wars of the Roses.
With the help of pardoner Robert Daud, who leaves them a bag containing a mysterious book, Thomas and Katherine reach Calais and join the company of two of Warwick’s men, Sir John Fakenham and his son, Richard. Here Thomas learns to use a bow and Katherine increases her knowledge of healing, skills they will need when they return to England to face their enemy, Sir Giles Riven, and to play their part in the bloody battles of Northampton and Towton.
Although this book has already received lots of glowing reviews, I’ll admit that I had my doubts about it before I started reading. I thought it might be too similar to Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses novel, Stormbird, which I read last year and struggled with. Luckily, while there were some similarities and I suspect that most people who did love Stormbird will love this book too, I did enjoy this one quite a bit more.
This is one of my favourite historical periods but I never get bored with reading about it; each book I pick up offers something new and adds to my knowledge of the subject. This novel is slightly different from most of the others I’ve read that are set during the Wars of the Roses, because instead of concentrating on the kings and queens, the rich noblemen and powerful battle commanders, the focus here is always on the ordinary people – people like Thomas, Katherine and their friends who have no involvement in politics and decision-making, but are risking their lives for York or for Lancaster.
I was interested to learn that Toby Clements had attended re-enactments and living history camps and even tried using a longbow, all as part of his research for this novel. The research has really paid off because his writing has a feel of authenticity that is sometimes lacking in other books. I could almost imagine that I really was standing in the middle of a muddy battlefield with arrows flying around me, walking through a smelly, bustling market place or watching Katherine performing surgery without the benefits of modern medicine. There’s certainly nothing glamorous about this story!
I only have two minor complaints about the book – and both are entirely a matter of personal taste. First, it is written in present tense which is something I almost always find slightly irritating. It seems to be an increasingly common choice of authors these days and is becoming difficult to avoid, but I still don’t like it and find past tense much easier to read. Clements also devotes more time to the battles (and fights, brawls, archery sessions etc) than I would have liked, but although I didn’t particularly enjoy reading these scenes I can appreciate that they were written very well, especially the Battle of Towton. As I said, though, other readers will not necessarily have a problem with either of these things.
Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims is the first in a series. At the moment I’m undecided as to whether I want to continue with the second book, but I did end up enjoying this one for the different perspective it offered on a period I love.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review via NetGalley