Dark Queen Rising by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is a very prolific author of historical mysteries; he has been writing since the 1980s and has written many series under several pseudonyms, set in a variety of periods including medieval England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. So far, my only experience of his work has been his standalone novel, Roseblood, which I really enjoyed, so when I came across Dark Queen Rising, the first in a new series set during my favourite period – the Wars of the Roses – I immediately wanted to read it.

The novel opens in 1471, just after the Battle of Tewkesbury, a battle which has ended in victory for the House of York and defeat for their rivals, the House of Lancaster. With the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI, held prisoner in the Tower of London, the victorious Yorkist army sets about destroying the other prominent noblemen who fought for Lancaster, including Henry’s heir, the young Prince of Wales. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, now sits securely on the throne of England – or does he? Margaret Beaufort, mother of one of the few remaining Lancastrian claimants, Henry Tudor, is making plans on behalf of her son, while Edward IV’s own brother – George, Duke of Clarence – is also gathering information that could bring about the king’s downfall.

Dark Queen Rising is described as the first in a series of ‘Margaret Beaufort mysteries’, which I think is slightly misleading – and looking at other reviews, it does seem that a lot of readers were expecting a different sort of book. There is a mystery, which develops when four men in the service of the Duke of Clarence are found dead in a tavern, but this doesn’t happen until the middle of the book and is never really the main focus of the novel. It’s more of a thriller, delving into the politics of the time and exploring some of the intrigue, plotting and controversy that makes this such a fascinating period of history.

Bearing in mind that Margaret Beaufort is one of the main characters in this book, I was surprised when, early in the novel, I saw a reference to her husband, ‘Sir Humphrey Stafford’. Margaret’s husband, of course, was Henry Stafford. Henry did have a brother called Humphrey who, coincidentally, was also married to another Margaret Beaufort, so I can see where the confusion has come from, but there’s really no excuse for not knowing which Margaret your novel is about. I was even more disappointed when, later in the book, references were made to Margaret’s future husband, William Stanley. This should have been Thomas Stanley, William’s brother. As the names of not just one but two of Margaret’s husbands were wrong, this made me question the accuracy of everything else in the novel, which is a shame as I do love this period and really wanted to enjoy this book.

George, Duke of Clarence has clearly been cast as the villain in this series, which is fair enough as history certainly tells us that he wasn’t the most honourable or trustworthy of people, but the way he is depicted in this book made him feel more like a caricature than a real person. When I think of the much more nuanced portrayals in books like Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour and Patrick Carleton’s Under the Hog, it’s disappointing. The character who did intrigue me in this book was Christopher Urswicke, who appears to be in Margaret’s employ but whose motives and true loyalties are not always very clear. I found the parts of the story written from Urswicke’s perspective much more interesting.

The second book in the series – Dark Queen Waiting – is out now, but because of the inaccuracies in this one, I’m not planning to read it, although I could possibly still be tempted by a sequel to Roseblood if one is ever written. Meanwhile, I’m now reading Thomas Penn’s new non-fiction book on the Wars of the Roses, The Brothers York, so I should be posting my thoughts on that one soon.

Thanks to Black Thorn for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson

The Wars of the Roses – the 15th century series of conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster – is one of my favourite periods of history to read about, partly because there are so many different ways in which the people and events of the time can be interpreted. Although I’ve read a few Wars of the Roses novels that take a more objective view of the period, authors – and readers – tend to be biased towards one side or the other. My personal preference is for York, but Joanna Hickson’s new novel The Tudor Crown is written from a decidedly Lancastrian perspective and shows both Henry Tudor and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, in a much more positive light than usual.

The Tudor Crown is a sequel to First of the Tudors and picks up where that book left off, but it does stand alone perfectly well so if you haven’t read the previous novel that shouldn’t be a problem. The story begins in 1471, just after the Lancastrians have been defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury. With both Henry VI and his heir, the Prince of Wales, dead, and the Yorkist king, Edward IV, back on the throne of England, the Lancaster hopes seem to be in ruins. As one of the remaining Lancastrian claimants, young Henry Tudor’s life is now in danger and, accompanied by his Uncle Jasper, the Earl of Pembroke, he flees the country and takes refuge in Brittany. And here he must stay, for almost fourteen years, biding his time and trying to build up the support he will need to one day return to England and take the throne he believes is his.

Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, has been left widowed following the death of her husband at the recent Battle of Barnet and has married again, this time to Thomas Stanley. She returns to court where she serves the wives of first Edward IV, then Richard III, but she has still not given up hope of Henry becoming king and continues to work tirelessly on his behalf. If only she could persuade Thomas Stanley to help her…but Stanley has been walking a tightrope between York and Lancaster for years and won’t make a final decision until he is sure victory is within reach.

The Tudor Crown is written partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Margaret’s, with the chapters alternating between the two. I found the Henry chapters the most interesting because I have never read about his time in exile in so much depth before. I was pleased to read in Joanna Hickson’s Author’s Note that most of the people Henry met during this time really existed. She does invent a romance for him with the fictional Catherine de Belleville, but I didn’t mind that as factual information on Henry’s exile is quite limited and if the author hadn’t used her imagination to fill in some of the gaps this wouldn’t have been much of a story. I loved the descriptions of the various places Henry visited and stayed at in Brittany, such as the Château de l’Hermine in Vannes (again a real place, but which sadly no longer exists in its original form). The Margaret chapters held less appeal for me simply because I am much more familiar with the events taking place in England during that period.

Both characters are portrayed with sympathy and understanding; in fact, I think Joanna Hickson might be the first author who has succeeded in actually making me like Henry (or Harri, as she refers to him, using a Welsh version of his name). He feels very human in this book and I almost found myself supporting him in his attempts to become king – although I still couldn’t bring myself to side with him against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth or to accept that Richard was responsible, beyond doubt, for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. I think there is plenty of doubt, which is why it is still being discussed and debated more than five hundred years later.

This is Joanna Hickson’s third book about the Wars of the Roses, following Red Rose, White Rose and First of the Tudors (her other two novels, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride are set in the period just prior to this). She mentioned in her Author’s Note that she is planning to write about Margaret Beaufort again in her next novel, so I will look forward to that one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Accession by Livi Michael

accession Having followed the stories of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Anjou throughout the early stages of the Wars of the Roses in Livi Michael’s Succession and Rebellion, we come at last to the third book in the trilogy, Accession, which covers what is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the period – Edward IV’s final years, the troubled reign of Richard III and Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth.

The novel opens in 1471, shortly after the Battle of Tewkesbury which has secured the throne of England for the Yorkist king, Edward IV. Despite her best efforts, the Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou, has had to admit failure: her armies have been defeated, her husband – the late King Henry VI – is dead, and her son, the Prince of Wales, on whom all her hopes rested, has been killed. Margaret, whose role in our story is almost over, is placed in the custody of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, where she will remain for the next few years.

For Margaret Beaufort, however, all is not lost. Although her son, Henry, the remaining Lancastrian heir, is still in exile in Britanny with his uncle, Jasper Tudor, Margaret is slowly preparing the ground for his return. The first stage in her plan is to marry again and the husband she has in mind – her fourth – is Thomas Stanley, a man who has become an expert at navigating through dangerous political waters and who has no qualms about changing sides between York and Lancaster whenever he believes the time is right to do so. Just the sort of man, she hopes, who has the power and the influence to help turn her dreams into reality.

I think Accession is probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Although the writing feels a little bit dry on occasions – more like non-fiction than fiction – the story is still compelling, even for someone who has read about these historical figures and events many times before! As in the previous two books, Livi Michael incorporates excerpts from contemporary chronicles of the period to tell part of the story, which is a method I have found both unusual and very effective. The use of the chronicles helps to set these novels apart from others that I’ve read on the Wars of the Roses.

Another thing I appreciate about this trilogy is that Livi Michael has avoided making her characters into heroes or villains, instead giving each of them a mixture of good points and bad points – and that includes her two protagonists, neither of whom are very easy to like. Margaret Beaufort in particular is portrayed as ambitious, scheming and manipulative – but always with the best interests of her son at heart. Almost everyone in this novel appears to be out for what they can get…and yet there are little touches of humanity too: Margaret Beaufort feeling sorrow at the death of Queen Anne, for example, despite having secretly been working against Anne’s husband, Richard; or Henry Tudor recognising the sacrifices made for him over the years by his uncle Jasper.

As for Richard III, he is no more of a hero or a villain than any of the other characters in the novel. Whenever I read a book which covers Richard’s reign, I look forward to seeing how the author will choose to tackle the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and I’m pleased to say that I was happy with the approach taken in Accession! It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but I found it convincing and a little bit different from the theories given in other novels I’ve read.

I’ve enjoyed reading all three books in Livi Michael’s trilogy and will continue to read about this period of history as I never seem to get bored with it!

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review.

Rebellion by Livi Michael

rebellion This is the second in Livi Michael’s trilogy of novels telling the story of the Wars of the Roses from the perspectives of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Anjou. After reading the first book, Succession, a few months ago I was keen to continue with the trilogy; Rebellion picks up directly where Succession ended, but as long as you have some knowledge of the period, it’s not really essential to have read the previous novel before starting this one. I’m not going to go into the background to the Wars of the Roses here, though; if you’re not already familiar with it, I’ll refer you to my review of Succession so I don’t bore you by repeating myself!

Rebellion begins shortly after the Battle of Towton, often described as the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, which ended in disaster for the House of Lancaster and put a new Yorkist king on the throne – Edward IV. The defeated Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, have fled to Scotland and from there Margaret travels to France to plead for help from the French king. Determined to win back the throne for Lancaster and secure the inheritance of her young son, Prince Edward, she eventually returns to England to lead an army into battle against York once again.

We also follow the story of another mother, Margaret Beaufort, whose only son, Henry Tudor, has been taken from her to be raised in the household of a guardian, William Herbert, at Raglan Castle in Wales. Margaret wants nothing more than to be reunited with Henry and can’t bear to think of him growing up in someone else’s care – but Henry is also a Lancastrian heir and it seems that there are people more powerful than Margaret who are making other plans for him.

Rebellion has a wide scope, encompassing most of the key events which occur from 1462-1471 and incorporating many important historical figures of the period from Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, to Margaret Beaufort’s husband (her third), Henry Stafford, and the family of the Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker. We also have our first glimpses of Edward’s younger brother, Richard of Gloucester, who I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of in the final novel. The characterisation is generally quite well done; my only problem was with the portrayal of Edward IV. I know he wasn’t perfect and, like his grandson Henry VIII, is said to have become fat and gluttonous as he approached middle age, but even so, I don’t think we really needed such graphic descriptions of his bodily functions!

As in the first novel, though, the main focus is on the lives of the two Margarets. I think both of these women are great subjects for historical fiction and both have interesting stories to be told; neither is particularly likeable, but their emotions, ambitions and thought processes are convincingly described. I could feel for Margaret of Anjou as she struggled to keep the Lancastrian hopes alive and I could sympathise with Margaret Beaufort as she suffered the pain of being separated from her beloved son.

I preferred this book to the first one, I think; I found it easier to get into, probably because the first few chapters concentrate on one character (Margaret of Anjou) so the narrative is more continuous at the beginning instead of jumping from one perspective to the next – although there’s plenty of that later in the book. The most notable thing about the previous book, Succession, was the use of medieval chronicles, from which quotes are given at the beginning or end of almost every chapter in such a way that they form a large part of the story. The author uses the same method again in this book, but the extracts seem to be used more sparingly than in the first one, so that they add an interesting angle to the novel without being too much of a distraction.

Rebellion, then, has its good points and its bad, but there’s no doubt that it’s set during a fascinating time in England’s history. Something that comes across strongly in this novel is the uncertainty of the period and the way in which fortunes can unexpectedly rise or fall and hopes and dreams can be destroyed in an instant:

“None of this is as we initially planned,” Warwick said, gazing intently at his son-in-law. “And none of it is set in stone.”

I’m looking forward now to reading Accession, the novel which will bring the trilogy to a close.

Thanks to the publisher, Penguin, for providing a review copy of this book.

Succession by Livi Michael

Succession 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.

The Women of the Cousins’ War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother is a non-fiction companion book to Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of historical fiction novels. The series tells the story of the Wars of the Roses from the viewpoints of some of the women who were involved, including Jacquetta of Luxembourg, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, who was married to Edward IV, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Their stories were told in The Lady of the Rivers, The White Queen and The Red Queen respectively. The Women of the Cousins’ War features an essay on all three of these women, each written by a different historian, and in addition to the essays we are given some family trees, maps, list of battles, illustrations and colour photographs.

The book begins with a long introduction written by Philippa Gregory, which I actually found as interesting to read as the rest of the book! The introduction discusses the possible reasons why women in history have often been ignored and overlooked, and why it’s important to study the roles they played. Gregory also looks at the differences between writing history and writing historical fiction, and as a lover of historical fiction myself I find it fascinating to read about an author’s reasons for writing it.

The introduction is followed by Gregory’s essay on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Unfortunately very little is known about Jacquetta, there are no existing biographies and apparently there are only a few occasions where she actually appears in historical records, so Gregory didn’t have a lot of information to give us. For most of the essay she can only guess at what Jacquetta may or may not have done and how she probably reacted to the historical events going on around her. However, this was the essay I enjoyed the most and it was as easy to read as Gregory’s fiction. It sounds as if Jacquetta had a fascinating life and it’s a shame that so few historians have taken the time to study her.

The second essay is written by the historian David Baldwin and looks at Elizabeth Woodville. I did find Baldwin’s writing style slightly dry, but Elizabeth Woodville is a historical figure who interests me, so I still enjoyed reading the essay. The book’s final section is written by Michael Jones and examines the life of Margaret Beaufort. Again, there’s not a huge amount known about Margaret, but I thought Jones did a good job of working with what little information is available. He also spends some time discussing Margaret’s family history to help us understand the background she came from and to build up a more complete picture of the sort of person she was.

This book could be read either as a stand-alone non-fiction/reference book or as an accompaniment to Philippa Gregory’s three Cousins’ War novels. I’m not sure how satisfying it would be for a serious historian or history student though, as there are no footnotes or endnotes and only some brief lists of sources. I should point out that I have never studied the Wars of the Roses in any depth (most of what I know about the period comes from the small number of historical fiction novels I’ve read set during that time) and for the general reader like myself I would say that the book is very accessible and easy to follow. It filled some of the gaps in my knowledge and I thought it was worth reading, particularly for the wonderful introduction!

I received a copy of this book for review from Simon & Schuster

Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

This is the second book in Philippa Gregory’s new series set during the Wars of the Roses, a tumultuous period of English history in which the rival houses of York and Lancaster struggled for power. In The White Queen we met Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV of York, sister-in-law of Richard III and mother of the two young princes who mysteriously disappeared in the Tower of London in 1483. The Red Queen is the story of another woman who also played an important part in the Wars of the Roses: Margaret Beaufort of Lancaster, the mother of King Henry VII.

Although this is the second book in the series, I wouldn’t really describe it as a sequel – that is, The Red Queen doesn’t just pick up where The White Queen left off. The two books overlap somewhat and cover some of the same events, but from opposing sides of the conflict. You don’t really need to have read the first book to understand this one, although it would probably make sense to read them in the correct order. I really like the concept of two books each telling the story from a different perspective; throughout much of The White Queen, Margaret Beaufort and the Tudors were shadowy characters in the background, plotting and scheming from afar, so it was good to have them take centre stage in The Red Queen.

One of the themes running throughout the book is Margaret’s belief that God has chosen her to be another Joan of Arc, who will lead the House of Lancaster to victory, and that God’s will is for her son Henry Tudor to be crowned King. Margaret was not very likeable – in fact she came across as a very cold, ambitious and unpleasant person – but as far as I can tell, this is probably true of the historical Margaret. I was surprised that I could still enjoy this book despite the narrator being so unsympathetic; sometimes obnoxious characters can be fun to read about, and I found Margaret’s uncharitable thoughts about the House of York and the Woodville family quite funny at times.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book because I have never studied the period in any depth – however, my lack of knowledge meant that I could just concentrate on enjoying the story! The Wars of the Roses were a complex and long-running series of conflicts, during which many of the key players changed their allegiances several times (and just to confuse things further, many of them also had the same names – lots of Henrys and Edwards, for example) but Philippa Gregory has made it easy to understand and follow what’s going on. I do think a more detailed family tree would have been helpful though – the one provided in the book was incomplete and I didn’t find it very useful.

The book is written in the same format as The White Queen, with most of the story being told in the first person present tense, occasionally switching to the third person to relate important events at which Margaret was not present, such as the Battle of Bosworth Field. I really like the way Philippa Gregory writes battle scenes using language that I can understand, as I often find reading about battles very confusing! The whole book is written in quite simplistic prose and can be repetitive at times, but it always held my attention and drew me into the story.

If you are new to the Wars of the Roses – a fascinating period of history – then I would recommend either The Red Queen or The White Queen as an excellent starting point. I also think that if you’ve tried Philippa Gregory in the past and didn’t find her books to your taste, it could be worth giving her another chance as these newest books are quite different from the Tudor ones that I’ve read.


I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster UK for their Red Queen Blog Tour