War of the Roses: Trinity, by Conn Iggulden

Review published on August 15, 2014. Reviewed by Susannah Perkins

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Conn Iggulden has made a name for himself not only through The Dangerous Book For Boys but also as the author of historical battle epics such as Emperor and Conqueror. Trinity is the second instalment in his latest War of the Roses series which takes us back to the origins of the conflict that tore down the Plantagenet dynasty for good. Richard’s defeat at Bosworth is well-known and even Edward IV’s climb to power is fairly well understood (particularly for those of us who hail from the North) but the original power struggles at the heart of Henry VI’s court have received very little coverage in fiction. Iggulden therefore has the chance to make his mark therefore in this relatively untrodden period of history but somehow the result falls slightly flat.

Iggulden is clearly ambitious for this trilogy and with Game of Thrones having whipped interest in medieval warfare to an all-time high it should be an easy success but somehow this return to the original source material fails to truly spark the same enthusiasm. The Wars of the Roses lingers in our collective consciousness because it was such a personality-driven conflict. There was the Mad King, his whispering advisers, his Loyal Wife, then the Sun of York and all the destruction that came afterwards. The fatal flaw for this novel is the characterisation, I found myself recognising the characters by name only rather than by any individual features of their personalities. Iggulden admitted in the afterword that he had set out to create characters who did not come down on the side of either right or wrong since he sensed their conflicted motivations and indeed it is very fashionable to write epic battles such as these without true heroes or villains (something else encouraged by Game of Thrones) but still, something was seriously missing.

Although as a reader we may puzzle over how George R R Martin has us cheering for Jaime Lannister when he pushed a seven year-old out a tower three books ago, Iggulden lacks this same narrative energy. His vision of Margaret of Anjou lacks the fire of the woman who kept the Lancastrian cause going for years after all hope was lost. Margaret of Anjou is such a fascinating character; it is as if she was born a few generations too soon, before the world was quite ready for the female leadership of Elizabeth I. Her frustration, fury and sense of betrayal must have been incredible but Iggulden never quite conjures her up. Iggulden’s Duke of York is insipid and his version of Henry VI is inconsistent to the point of ridiculousness. In Stormbird, we had a man so lost to the realities of kingship that he believed his best way of protecting his territories against invasion was prayer. In Trinity, Henry awakes from his long catatonic state and apparently understands all at once how to take power convincingly. And then a few chapters later he lapses back into his old personality. These transformations felt rushed and underdeveloped; this is a common problem in novels where the action is spread over several years requiring frequent leaps in time. Iggulden noted that he had compressed the chronology but even so, Trinity felt as if it was always rushing between one event and the next.

The character who niggles the most is Derry Brewer, Iggulden’s own creation. Set up as Henry VI’s streetwise common-man adviser, he seems all too close a cousin to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell yet lacked the latter’s smooth dealing. Brewer speaks plainly, he is respected by all and he is a master of disguise and holds all the cards. In short, he is a classic author proxy – like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, he solves all problems until Iggulden needs him not to be able to. Brewer’s wise-cracking Ray Winstone-esque charm never quite sits comfortably beside the regal Margaret of Anjou for all that Iggulden writes her laughing at Brewer’s jokes. He lacks Cromwell’s edges and becomes a mere narrative agent rather than a convincing character.

The Duke of York however is another disappointment. Iggulden is right in seeing him as a complex and conflicted character. This is the man who held Henry VI prisoner and yet kept him safe. He seemed to have the nation’s interests as his motivation although he certainly had ambitions towards the throne. There are moments when Iggulden allows him to interact with Henry with real poignancy but this is never fully explored. Similarly, we have glimpses of the York family with three of his sons making appearances but once more there is little depth. The actions of these men and their wives would change the face of Britain forever and Iggulden never really brings their thoughts and feelings to life.

Trinity is at its best during the battle scenes which Iggulden choreographs with skill and confidence. He conjures vividly these scenes of confusion and destruction; during one particular battle, one man is shot with an arrow through his face with very gory results. These are no battles of chivalric myth, this is brutal and bloody and real. It was fascinating to see the young Earl of Warwick lead his first campaigns with all his men dressed in red because he believed it helped them fight more strongly. It was here though that it also became most obvious that Iggulden had failed to define his characters when one realises that all that separates one from the other is their names – aside from that their characters are as uniform as the Earl of Warwick’s men.

The Wars of the Roses was a conflict of biblical proportions; the seeds were sown at Edward III’s deathbed and the bitterness which budded from it grew darker and darker until the entire plant ate itself. Brother against brother, uncle against nephew, cousin against cousin. This was a family conflict, a family that lost loyalty, lost lands, lost lives – the House of Lancaster was extinguished, the House of York consumed itself and so from the ashes the Tudor dynasty was born, the Tudors who were never supposed to rule. There is a reason why Shakespeare wrote so many plays about it, these were human beings tearing each other to pieces because they were too afraid of losing their own position to do anything else. Iggulden never quite plumbs the depths of this human greed and avarice, meaning that his characters come across as generally well-intentioned but with vaguely suspicious motives. It might have worked better with a more focused narrator to guide the reader’s sympathies but without that, the story dragged as the reader instead plodded between the Lancastrian and Yorkist camps and watched as everything began to crumble. When I read Stormbird, I thought that this ‘male perspective’ to the Wars of the Roses had real potential but hoped that the next instalment would not feel like so much of a build-up. Unfortunately, that is exactly what it felt like. Too heavily influenced by its forebears Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall, Iggulden forgets that the War of the Roses holds appeal as a conflict with human dimensions and his novel neglects the humans.

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The Path Through the Trees, by Christopher Milne

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Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell

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