25 February, 2010

The Stolen Crown, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2010, ISBN 978-1402237669, 377 pages. Edition reviewed: uncorrected advance review copy, kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in 1464-1485, with an epilogue covering 1492-1496, The Stolen Crown covers the later years of the Wars of the Roses and the short reign of Richard III, as told by Harry Stafford Duke of Buckingham and his wife Katherine (Kate) Woodville. All the named characters are based on historical figures.

When six-year-old Kate Woodville witnesses her elder sister Elizabeth secretly marrying Edward IV, King of England, she knows her life will never be the same again. The next year, aged seven, she marries the nine-year-old Harry, who is already Duke of Buckingham after the untimely deaths of his father and grandfather and will come into a great fortune when he comes of age. Kate does not particularly like her young husband’s devotion to his hero, the king’s younger brother Richard of Gloucester, though as yet it casts little shadow over her comfortable life and their adolescent happiness together. Harry is annoyed at being excluded from the high office and power that he thinks his rank entitles him to, but his “delicious Kate”, as he calls her, is considerable compensation. Then in 1483 King Edward IV dies unexpectedly, and as Richard claims the throne for himself in place of his two young nephews, Harry suddenly finds himself at the very centre of power. It is the chance he has dreamed of, to make himself indispensable to his hero Richard – but it comes at a terrible price.

The Stolen Crown is narrated alternately in first person by Harry and Kate. I liked seeing two points of view, particularly as Harry is closely involved in the action after the death of Edward IV and so is an actor in events that Kate would have had to be told about at second hand. The tone of the two narrators is rather similar, perhaps reflecting their shared aristocratic upbringing, and I found I had to pay close attention to the chapter headings to check who was speaking.

As with The Traitor’s Wife and Hugh and Bess by the same author, The Stolen Crown is full of historical detail. All the named characters, even down to ladies in waiting and pages, are based on historical figures. The novel covers the intricacies and contradictions of fifteenth-century politics effectively, often by means of older characters explaining matters to Kate when she is a child. It can be tricky keeping track of all the players, especially given the limited number of popular Christian names in use at the time (practically every family had a Margaret, an Anne, an Isabel or Elizabeth, an Edward, a Richard, etc). The lists of characters organised by family at the front of the book are invaluable.

As the book starts when Kate and Harry are both children, for the first half of the book they are often on the periphery of events as observers rather than participants. It was interesting to watch them growing up and being shaped by their families and experiences, particularly the development of their relationship from children through adolescent romance and into a loving marriage. On the other hand, I found this made the book seem rather slow for the first 200 pages or so, until Edward IV dies and the pace steps up a gear.

The key strength of the book for me was the portrayal of Harry’s relationship with Richard III, which on Harry’s side appears to be mainly hero-worship with faintly homoerotic overtones. This fits well with Harry’s character as developed in the story; having inherited his dukedom as a child and (astonishingly, given the political turmoil of the times) never having been seriously threatened, Harry seems to be still an overgrown teenager even in his late twenties. Imperious, with an inflated sense of his own importance and inclined to speak first and think about the consequences later, he is hopelessly unsuited to high politics. (It’s no surprise that he is affectionately greeted in the afterlife with, “Well, Harry, you certainly made a fine mess of things, didn’t you?”). Richard, who is three years older and has been involved in the cut and thrust of war and politics since the age of sixteen, is a stronger, tougher character and it seems natural that the immature Harry would look up to him. I’m curious about Richard’s side of the story, if only to see whether the relationship was as one-sided as it appears. Yes, the book does give an unequivocal answer to the perennial mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

Kate is sweet and likeable, with the emotional resilience characteristic of Susan Higginbotham’s other medieval heroines. Picking up the pieces to rebuild her life after personal and political disaster, she reminded me of Eleanor de Clare in The Traitor’s Wife.

The novel is written in straightforward modern prose, attractively salted with occasional wry humour. A helpful Author’s Note at the back sets out the historical background and the rationale for some of the author’s decisions about the various unsolved historical problems. It also very helpfully summarises what happened to the various main characters after the end of the story, and in some cases gives some information about the role their descendants played in later history.

Unsentimental portrayal of the turbulent events surrounding the short and ill-starred reign of Richard III, and in particular the dramatic role played by Henry Stafford Duke of Buckingham.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for the review, Carla!

Daphne said...

Great review! I'm hoping to start this one today or tomorrow at the latest - I"m looking forward to reading it.

Kathryn Warner said...

Great review! I'm expecting Stolen Crown to be delivered in the next few days, and am really looking forward to it.

Carla said...

Susan - you're welcome.

Daphne, Kathryn - If you enjoyed The Traitor's Wife I think you'll enjoy this one too. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Meghan said...

Thanks for the review! How interesting the book is told by two different POV like that.

Carla said...

I've seen multiple points of view used before. It can give a wider perspective than a single narrative, as different characters can recount events they have been involved in, whereas a single character might have to hear some of the events at second-hand, and it can be a good way to show opposing sides of a conflict. I like Colleen McCullough's Song of Troy, which has at least half a dozen narrators and works very well. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep all the narrators distinctive, especially if there are a lot of them; in Alison Weir's Innocent Traitor there must have been 10 narrators and they almost all sounded the same to me.