The heat of battle, the perils of politics and the family alliances that forged a nation become the stuff of storytelling dreams in Conn Iggulden’s first foray into British history.
But the truly devilish delight of the first book of the new trilogy from the acclaimed author of the Emperor and Conqueror books lies in the attention to detail.
Conflicts both on and off the battlefield, the machinations behind England’s bitter Wars of the Roses, a vicious scramble for power and 40 years of virtual anarchy cannot fail to provide rich pickings for any historical novelist worth their salt.
However, Iggulden’s vibrant retelling still manages to go above and beyond as he moves effortlessly between the high-level scheming of squabbling nobles to the rebellious, ragtag army of Kentish men who set out on a dangerous mission to topple the monarchy.
Stormbird is brilliant opener to the series, a fast-paced, thrilling novel which charts the disastrous reign of the increasingly insane and ineffectual Henry VI whose weak governance led to the loss of lands in France and eventually control of his own kingdom.
Iggulden places a firm focus on the nature of politics and warfare in the Middle Ages, bringing to life the leading characters who strutted a stage noted for gripping intrigue, bitter fighting and breathtaking treachery.
From the mud, blood and wholesale slaughter of the battlefields of England to the poisonous politicking and the blossoming of Henry’s teenage bride Margaret of Anjou, Iggulden paints a rich and enthralling portrait of a turbulent period.
In 1437, King Henry V, the warrior king and great Lion of England, is long dead and after years of regency, his pious and gentle son Henry VI, known as the Lamb, finally comes of age and accedes to the English throne.
His poor health and frailty of mind make him a weak and malleable king, dangerously dependent on the two men closest to him, Spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to run his kingdom.
There are other powerful nobles, such as the Plantagenet Richard, Duke of York, who believe England must be led by a strong king if she is to survive and, with English territories in France under threat and rumours of revolt at home, fears grow that Henry and his advisers will see the country slide into ruin.
When a secret deal is struck by the Duke of Suffolk and Brewer for Henry to marry a young French noblewoman, Margaret of Anjou, along with a reciprocal deal to return hard-won, English-held territories back to France, Richard of York is outraged.
As storm clouds gather over England and Kentish rebel leader Jack Cade heads for the Tower of London, King Henry and his supporters find themselves besieged both abroad and at home.
The battle lines are drawn and the race is on to save the kingdom before it is too late…
The Wars of the Roses is historical fiction at its best… alive with the people who directed the action and suffered its consequences, the men who fought and the women waited, those who ruled and those who would usurp that power.
A riveting story which impresses as much as it thrills…
(Michael Joseph, hardback, £18.99)