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This is Sharon Penman's first novel, and over the course of 900 pages she deals with the life and times of Richard of Gloucester, the man who was to become Richard III of England. History has not dealt kindly with Richard - Tudor propaganda has dealt him a cruel blow by making him out to be a deformed and evil man who was able to put his nephews to death and contemplate bedding his niece while his beloved wife lay close to death.
In this story, we follow the fortunes of the Yorkists from Richard's early life when Edward moved to claim the throne from Harry of Lancaster. Richard is written to be an intensely loyal and clever man, beloved by his elder brother and honoured by many positions of authority. It is easy to develop a strong sympathy for the character of Richard, which lends understanding to why he would then claim the throne after his brother's death.
The book looks at the events of the time through many character's eyes - including Francis Lovell, Richard's friend from childhood; Anne, destined to become Richard's cherished wife; and Bess, the first-born daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville.
The strongest element of Penman's writing is her ability to draw vivid and realistic characters. From the pleasure-seeking Edward to his ambitious and conniving queen; from the dignified Cecily who watched four sons be buried to the arrogant and self-seeking Buckingham. None of the characters can be assigned a 'good' or 'bad' tag - all have very believable motives assigned to them, and you end up feeling huge empathy for why they might act the way they do.
Although the book is a lengthy tome, I read it in under a week, drawn into a world where Richard is allowed to take his place as a man who cared deeply about his family and as a king who took the throne reluctantly. The last few hundred pages were heartbreaking as Buckingham sought to claim the crown for himself, and Richard was forced to experience the death of his nephews at someone else's command, then the illness and death of both his son and wife. When he eventually took to battle at Bosworth Field, he treated it as a trial by combat to be judged by God.
I think this is a stunning achievement, a book that should be read time and again. It was absorbing and extremely poignant - especially knowing the outcome prior to beginning the story.
This review has been posted to Floor to Ceiling Books