With my interest in the Wars of the Roses, I remember hearing about this book, the first in a trilogy, when it was published a couple of years ago, but for one reason or another I never got round to reading it. Two years later, the third and final novel has just been published, and Penguin have kindly sent me the whole trilogy for review. I’ve now read the first book, Succession, and am sure I’ll be reading the other two very soon.
I know not everyone is familiar with the background to the Wars of the Roses, so I should start by explaining that they were a series of wars fought in the second half of the 15th century between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet. With King Henry VI of England (a descendant of Edward III through the Lancastrian line) suffering from an unspecified mental illness, there were many who considered him unfit to rule, leaving the way open for another claimant to the throne – Richard, Duke of York, another of Edward III’s descendants. From 1455-1487 a number of battles were fought between supporters of Lancaster and supporters of York; Succession covers only the early part of this period.
There are interesting, colourful characters on both sides of this conflict, but if I had to choose, I would say that I’m a Yorkist. This novel, however, is written mainly from the Lancastrian perspective, concentrating on two young women who share the same name – Margaret. The first is Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and the second is Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future Henry VII. We do meet plenty of other characters (so many that you may need to make use of the character list and family tree at the beginning of the book to keep track of them all) but the stories of these two women are always the main focus of the novel.
We first meet Margaret Beaufort as a little girl who has become a ward of the Duke of Suffolk following the death of her own father, the 1st Duke of Somerset. A childhood marriage to Suffolk’s son, John de la Pole, is annulled when Henry VI chooses to marry the twelve-year-old Margaret to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor. Within a year, Edmund is dead of the plague, leaving his young widow pregnant with his child and at the mercy of his brother, Jasper (who is portrayed here in a surprisingly negative light).
Margaret of Anjou also has a difficult life, trying to hold the country together during the king’s long spells of illness so that she can keep the throne secure for their baby son, Edward. Neither of the Margarets are very likeable characters, but it would be difficult not to sympathise with the situations in which they find themselves. Some of Margaret of Anjou’s attempts to communicate with her unresponsive husband are very moving, while Margaret Beaufort’s story is sometimes quite disturbing – for example, the trauma suffered by a small thirteen-year-old giving birth is described in detail.
This is a period of history with which I’ve become very familiar over the last few years and, as this novel follows the historical sequence of events very closely, I always knew, more or less, what was going to happen next. There’s nothing very new in terms of plot, but the approach Livi Michael takes to telling the story is quite different from anything I’ve read before. She writes in several styles throughout the novel – sometimes a chapter is written in the first person, sometimes in the third – and from the perspectives of many different characters (a red or a white rose at the start of each chapter gives a useful indication of whether the character’s allegiance is to York or to Lancaster), but the most striking thing about Succession is the use of extracts from contemporary chronicles such as the Crowland Chronicle or John Benet’s Chronicle.
Each chapter starts or finishes with at least one paragraph taken from a chronicle of the time and it’s important to read all of these because they are used to advance the story and to relate events which our characters may not have personally witnessed. The Battle of Blore Heath, for example, is told entirely in the form of chronicles with no original prose at all. I liked the feeling of authenticity that this provided; however, it could also be distracting at times and, together with the very short length of the chapters (many are only one or two pages long), it made me feel that I was constantly being pulled out of the story. There is one much longer chapter in the middle of the book entitled Margaret Beaufort Travels to Wales and this was my favourite part of the novel, as we were finally given an opportunity to spend a decent amount of time getting to know one character with no interruptions.
Although the style and structure of Succession weren’t always a complete success with me, I did still enjoy the creative approach to a story I love and I will certainly be picking up the second book, Rebellion, soon.