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Mar 1, 2010

Book Review: The Stolen Crown by Susan Higginbotham

The Stolen Crown: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham
Sourcebooks Pub. Date: March 01, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1402237669
Review copy provided by Sourcebooks, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: somewhere flipflopping between3.5 Stars or 4 stars

As opposed to Susan Higginbotham's last piece of historical fiction (Hugh and Bess: my review), this novel was loaded with a lot more historical events. When one is dealing with the era of the Wars of the Roses, it is very hard to write a novel without including at least a zillion of the secondary characters. When I first opened up The Stolen Crown, I was greeted with several pages of a character list. This is when you realize you will require your thinking-cap to be working at its very best. As I said, her last novel was quite entertaining and a breezy read. This one is entertaining, but not quite so breezy. Of course, I cannot think of the topic at hand ever having the possibility of being breezy unless it's one of those bodice-ripper romances that ignore the entire concept behind the Wars of the Roses.
Trapped in the Wars of the Roses, one woman finds herself sister to the queen...and traitor to the crown.
Now, I hesitate to mention Philippa Gregory, because I don't want Susan to take me off of her blogroll, but I must point out that those who read (and enjoyed) Gregory's recent The White Queen would do well to read this one as well. Not quite in the same vein of writing style, but these two reads each cover the Wars of The Roses, and the Woodville family, and this is written in an easier to follow fashion as opposed to some others regarding the era. Whereas The White Queen covers more of the view from Elizabeth Woodville, queen to Edward IV, and includes a lot of fictionalized events, Higginbotham uses alternating first-person narratives from Kate Woodville, a much younger sister to Queen Elizabeth (not to be confused with Elizabeth I), and Henry Stafford, who becomes Kate's husband, but stays true to course with historical accuracy with these two narrators embellishing as they pleased.

My educated guess after this second read from this author, is that Higginbotham is one of those writers who is quite humorous, and lets a little of that out within her characters. She does this throughout, with sarcastic remarks coming out of the mouths of her young narrators, and at some junctures it is quite funny. Others though may find it too out of key with the subject matter, after all, people are dying left and right (Lancastrians and Yorkists) and there seemingly is no rhyme and reason to it. Eventually, as the characters mature, it shows within the writing as well and there are not as many tongue-in-cheek comments.

The Wars of the Roses is a very complicated period of time where more than one person felt that they had a right to a piece of the royal crown. Hence the title: The Stolen Crown. Think on that a bit... back and forth the crown went.. instead of the seemingly simple hereditary lineage we have Edward IV 'stealing' the crown from Henry VI. The novel doesn't go into how this happened, since the novel begins with the setting of young Kate Woodville being a witness to the secret marriage between King Edward and her sister Elizabeth. So after Edward 'steals' the crown, he goes and marries into some upstart family and that's where the novel begins, along with England's chaos. The roses stand for Lancaster Red, and White Rose of York. Their fate is to become united.. but first the Wars of the Roses must be fought, many must die, and only one may win, in such a way that it is to put to rest the two warring factions.

As the story opens with Edward and Elizabeth marrying in secret, we meet some of the Woodville siblings. And indeed this is one helluva family that Edwards marries into. Not only does Edward thwart normal royal protocol by marrying secretly instead of contracting a fantastically beneficial one with perhaps a foreign alliance to boot, this marriage brings with it a veritable town of Woodvilles!! The so-called Kingmaker, Warwick, the guy who really likes to call the shots as far as the realm is concerned, is beyond peeved when he learns of what his protegé Edward has done. Along with the marriage, the Woodvilles are given better titles and lands of which they had never dreamed of owning.

The Nevilles and the Warwicks and the rest of the Yorkist factions are now forced to step aside for the bazillion siblings of the Queen, not to mention the two Grey sons she had with her first husband. Hopeful marriage alliances that were always expected to happen for the Yorkists were instead given to the Woodvillian relatives. Which is where the little Yorkist Kate Woodville comes in. She is married off to Henry Stafford, the offspring of a Lancastrian family! The question remains, how will a Yorkist and a Lancastrian get along together? And one feels that a repeat of the romantic style of the previous novel Hugh and Bess could happen, where it really turns less into historical anecdotes and more into a love story.. but that doesn't happen here.

Instead, we are treated to a sense of the times, of how tenuous the hold on life was. (The Woodville) Queen Elizabeth has to go to sanctuary because Warwick has revolted against his King, and in 1470 Henry VI a slightly insane King is placed back on the throne. Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou is mentioned in the novel, but not with too much emphasis. But she did represent a figurehead for the Lancastrians, and she and Henry had a son Edward of Lancaster that in normal days should have meant he was next in line. But as I said, Edward IV had stolen the crown. Well, it was stolen back from Edward. Then he got it back again. Everyone was happy when Warwick was finally killed in battle, even young Kate, but she was flabbergasted when poor helpless Henry VI was suddenly found dead. Maybe King Edward was not so great after all.

I neglected to mention that Edward IV has two brothers, who also must be mentioned because of the way that The Wars of the Roses works out. The brother Richard is a great friend to Henry Stafford, and he figures moreso than George, the Duke of Clarence. Richard and Henry are portrayed as buddies, as thick as thieves. George has been a traitor and Edward still takes him back into his Yorkist fold (keep your enemies closer mentality). And George is a greedy evil young man, who kidnaps Richard's beloved Anne because he wants her lands. Or he is jealous. It doesn't emphasize this event too much.

As with most of the events that don't occur directly on to our two main protagonists, many details are left out. Which is understandable because of the multitude of details that inevitably occur when dealing with the many people and events involved with the Wars of The Roses. And there are many, many details. Those readers who do not have any clue as to what the Wars of the Roses are about may find themselves a little lost from time to time, but the main story thankfully remains a focus throughout, so that events that could take chapters of our time are merely grazed over here, because this is a story focused on two people. And I still cannot picture Queen Elizabeth as a Bess or a Bessie. Calling her Elizabeth would've been just fine with me.

Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, finally grows into his inheritance, and sees stars in his eyes whenever land or Richard of York are featured. Thus, Henry becomes less of a likable character, whereas Kate does stay true to form, as a good wife to her Lancastrian husband and a good sister to her Yorkist Queen. King Edward IV dies suddenly, leaving behind his Woodvillian offspring in the hands of hateful Yorkists (like his brother Richard turns out to be). Henry and Kate have children, and they become her only solace as the inevitable happens. Queen Elizabeth and her family are forced into sanctuary yet again. Henry supports Richard of York when he overthrows the succession, the boys of King Edward disappear, and Richard steals the crown. Here we go again with the stolen crown business. England doesn't know what happened to the boy king, and are seemingly in a state of shock but Higginbotham has Richard III acting very non-Ricardian...  Which this non-Ricardian-for-the-moment believes to be the probable fate.

Finally, Henry realizes that Richard III is a monster, although he has worshipped him most of his life. Henry decides to join the rebel cause, which supports Margaret Beaufort's son Henry Tudor. He is descended from Edward III, therefore having a claim to the throne. As a Lancastrian, the family believes the Yorkist family should not be anywhere close to the throne. When our protagonist Henry Stafford sees this light, his best friend Richard III becomes his strongest foe. What ensues is a sad account of Stafford trying to support Henry Tudor's claim, but is quickly captured and dealt with accordingly, as history tells us matter-of-factly, but Higginbotham does an admirable job of humanizing it.

How does the widowed Kate fare in Richard III's rule as a wife to a turn-coat? As a hated Woodville can she protect her now-Stafford-traitor-tainted children from the child-killer King Richard? I believe I've given you a fair account of the story so far, you will need to read the book to find out the end. There is more to the story, and even an epilogue which I always really enjoy in my historical reads. Kind of like a cherry on top.

I have always enjoyed a Wars of the Roses story, and this one is included among them. The myriad of characters and the forces at work make so many different side stories that form an intricate puzzle that slowly but surely forms into a beautiful portrait (of which I wish there was an accompanying genealogocial chart). Higginbotham's story is a part of that puzzle: a finely woven web that traps you into the magnificent history of the Wars of the Roses, and this one thread of Henry and Kate is an excellent rendering against the backdrop of the tumultuous period of England before the Tudors took over. Definitely a must read for those who are searching for more clues to the period of the Wars of the Roses, as this novel is a perfectly sliced portion to whet your appetite for more.

I welcome Susan to The Burton Review on March 9, 2010 with a guest post, so please be sure to check back then!