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Book Report: Kingmaker’s Daughter

Book four in the Plantagenet and Tudor series is The Kingmaker’s Daughter. This book follows Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, nicknamed the Kingmaker due to his influence on the throne of England. The Kingmaker’s Daughter covers about twenty years of her life (May of 1465 – March of 1485), and is the first book in this series that does not end at a later date than the previous books: everything we see Anne experience is something we’ve seen from another viewpoint.

The Kingmakers Daughter

The story

Anne Neville is introduced as a young girl, scared of the ‘Bad Queen’ (Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI) and enamored of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV. The story begins as her father’s influence over Edward is waning, and he begins looking for other, more complaint claimants to the throne, including Edward’s brother, George, and Henry VI. Anne, with no influence of events, watches her sister be married to George and herself married to Henry’s son, Edward of Westminster.

When the rebellion leads to the death of her father and husband, Anne is received back in court as a pariah, tainted by her association with both names, yet because of the wealth of her inheritance, she cannot simply be cast away. She is eventually rescued by Richard, Edward’s brother and marries him to secure her safety. This puts her in position to influence Richard and eventually become the queen.

The character

I found Anne’s growth in the novel to be primarily guided by fear.  As a young woman, she is afraid first of the  Bad Queen, then as an adult she becomes fearful of of Elizabeth Woodville. The Kingmaker’s scheming cost the queen several family members, and married Anne to a rival king, giving the Woodvilles several reasons to hate her. She has no control but suffers so much for the actions of her family.

Her first true decision in her life is to marry Richard. That gives her some agency and control. But her decisions are still guided by fear. She is afraid of the Woodville family and their supposed magic, fears poison and strange influences. This fear influences how she interacts with Richard, though its left unclear if Richard shares her worried or uses them for political gain.

The Princes in the Tower (potential spoilers)

We saw Richard reacting to the disappearance of the princes before, that he would be saddled with the responsibility even if it wasn’t his fault. His sentiment here is similar. What this book adds is Anne’s own contribution to the confusion.

Once Richard has seized power, Anne is fretting about the shifting loyalties of the major players of the kingdom. Lords who supported Richard turn against him, while others who defied him become allies. Anne mentioned to a Richard’s choice for Constable of the Tower that things would be easier if the Princes were to disappear.

When the Princes disappear, Anne becomes worried that she had accidentally ordered their death; that the Constable had heard her musing and taken it for an order. It’s not until much later that she finally gathers the courage to ask. The Constable says he did not – and would not have – killed the boys. He does not know where they are, or if they are alive.

Is that true? Who knows? Like all the other queens who’ve added to the confusion, Anne’s will is being acted by other agents, which adds a layer of potentially unreliable narrators to the story. I continue to doubt we will ever get a solid resolution, though there may be some subtle hints I’m missing.

Conclusion

Kingmaker’s Daughter is not a step above the previous books; I’d rate it the lowest of the ones I’ve read so far. That doesn’t make it bad. Anne is letting us see the whole story from another perspective, from the view of the king who was an antagonist in the previous two queens. It finished off the three queens of the end of the Lancaster and York families, and sets up the Tudors dynasty. But the way the fear drives her character development is frustrating, especially as we’ve seen these events through the other women’s eyes and we have good reason to believe she’s overreacting. Still, a good book to read.

Book Report: White Queen

The second book in Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction series, The White Queen follows Elizabeth Woodville, from her first introduction to Edward of York (Spring of 1464), their marriage and coronation, through the War of the Roses, to the elevation of Henry VII and the nominal end of the war (April 1485).

First off, I want to say that this is a new experience for me. Other historical fiction series I’ve read fallow the same character or characters through their run. In this series, however, each book is from a different point of view. Elizabeth Woodville is the daughter of Jacquetta of Luxembourg of the first book. They are characters in each other’s stories, but otherwise there’s little overlap. Indeed, Jacquetta as a character in this book seems a much more political animal than she did as the POV character in the first book. I expect this to continue through the series, as we see the same actions through the lenses of different POV characters, particularly when we see through the eyes of their enemies.

The Book

Much like the first book, the character has some minor supernatural gifts; she knows when people she’s related to have died, and possibly summons storms and spells comes into play with the Princes in the Tower (see below). And as the first one, these are used as plot devices without unending the story.

Also, in similarity to the last story, there was a bit of ‘What did you think would happen?’ going on, though it had a different flavor. When Elizabeth weds King Edward IV, it changes the political landscape of the kingdom. Edward can no longer be wed to a foreign princess, or to an influential noble. Elizabeth then has to use her influence to put her family (a relatively minor family of nobility) into positions of power for their own security. But doing so invites the danger from other nobility. It’s a real ‘what came first, the threat or the act?’ Did the Rivers family invite danger by securing their position? Maybe. Yet if they hadn’t, they’d have been susceptible to much lower threats that what they eventually ran into.

There are several characters in the story I very much like: Elizabeth’s older brother, Anthony, a bibliophile after my own heart, whose dreams of poetry and pilgrimage are constantly disrupted by real life. Edward IV is a fantastic character in the story, even as he commits the Machiavellian acts a king of the time must do to secure power. Both of them were fun characters to read about.

The Princes In the Tower (Spoilers)

This is one of the few things from the War of the Roses I was aware of, so it’s one of the things I paid most attention to. What surprised me was what the author did with it.

The History

The history of the mystery is simple. Edward IV died; his sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York (12 and 9, respectively) were kept in the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.  Before the coronation of Edward, they were declared illegitimate, and Richard took the crown as Richard III. The children eventually disappeared. The fact is, no one knows what happened to them, and explaining all the theories would be a whole blog post in and of itself. For more info, check the Wikipedia page.

The Story

In this book, Elizabeth Woodville loses her son Edward to the Tower, ostensibly awaiting his coronation as king; she’s then put under pressure to send her other son, Richard, to follow. But Elizabeth does not trust Uncle Richard, and spirits her son off to hiding in Flanders, sending a lookalike in his place. When rumors of the disappearance begin to swirl, it is unclear who is responsible. Elizabeth is especially concerned because she has not heard the music she usually hears when someone has died. So she believe Edward is alive, but cannot prove it.

In my favorite scene of the book, Richard III covertly visits Elizabeth in Westminster Abby and inquires about the whereabouts of the princes, hoping that Elizabeth has spirited them away. He is upset because all of this will be laid at his feet, regardless of the actual culprit.

‘They will call me a monster.’ [Richard] pauses. ‘Whatever else I do in my life, this will cast a crooked shadow. All that everyone will ever remember of me is this crime.’ He shakes his head. ‘And I didn’t do it, and I don’t know who did it, and I don’t even know if it was done.’

-Richard III, The White Queen

Elizabeth does not come to any conclusion on the matter of responsibility. There is some indication it was Richard, but it’s never resolved if he’s responsible.

I’m curious to see how this all plays out in the future. Does Gregory assign blame to one party or another or does she leave the mystery alone? How does Elizabeth sending her son into hiding come into play in the future, or will that plotline disappear? I’ve got several books to read and find out more.

Conclusion

I liked the book. It was a good second story in the series, and continued the intrigues of the War of the Roses and the ridiculousness of monarch politics of the era. I’m remember to take the stories with a grain of salt; I have no idea if the characters involved were as Gregory writes them, or how much liberty she’s taking with their lives.

Book Report: 2034

2034: A novel of the Next World War (by Elliot Ackerman and ADM James Stavridis) was recommended to me by a friend who thought I’d enjoy it. For the most part he was right, though not in the way I originally expected. See, when I first reserved it at the library, I thought it was a book on the order of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising or Debt of Honor, where a world war starts with America at a disadvantage, but then the country turns it around and wins the day.

That’s not what this is.

2034 is more of a cautionary tale about the reliance on technology, particularly how it opens up the US to new forms of warfare. The surprises that China and her allies (Iran and Russia) pull on the US have to do with cyberwarfare, the invasion and disruption of communications networks and computers. US Technology doesn’t amount for much when it is neutralized or outright repurposed by enemy combatants. And when your technology fails, what options does a nation have when persecuting a war?

Part of what makes this a cautionary tale is that the book doesn’t include a lot of combat, and what combat there is finished very quickly. There’s a carrier battle in the South China Sea, and an invasion of Taiwan, but you don’t see those. You see the consequences, the shifts in the political board and the decisions that politicians chose, or feel they must, make.

In some ways, this reminded me of Guns of August, in that there’s the sense of inertia. You as the reader (and some of the characters) see a way out of the war without escalating, but the political inertia compels the nations to step down that path. Indeed, much of the first part of the book is the US reacting exactly as expected. Admiral Stavridis is experienced at high level military decisions, so I have to assume he’s bringing that experience to the book. In which case, oh dear.

Some people might think this is an anti-American book, which it really isn’t. It’s not saying America deserves to lose. It’s saying no one inherently deserves to be at the top, and there is danger in ignoring threats simply because you can’t imagine yourself losing. The patriotism of the book is to the American ideal, not to the political establishment. As one character thinks to himself, ‘… America was an idea. And ideas very seldom vanish.’

2034 is a book that makes you think. That’s what it was written to do. Not to entertain with cool battle scenes, but show you why those scenes would matter in a modern conflict and how much work has to be done before any conflict can start. Maybe you as a reader aren’t in a position to do much about that, but it’s still nice to stretch the mind to new ideas and perspectives. And this book certainly does that.

Book Report: Lady of the Rivers

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory is a historical fiction novel, spanning about thirty years from the death of Joan of Arc to the beginning battles of the Wars of the Roses. The book follows Jacquetta of Luxembourg as she becomes a duchess of England and confident of the royal family. It is the first book in a series of 15 called the Plantagenet and Tudor novels.

I read this book on the recommendation of a friend of mine from my writing group, after mentioning my fondness for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. I got it from the library and gave it a read, and I really got into it.

The book is, mostly, historical fiction. I say mostly because Jacquetta has some very minor supernatural abilities. She can heard music when someone she knows has died, and can divine impressions of what the future will hold, enough to prepare herself but without being able to influence events. The author is very careful to use these abilities to augment the story without unending it.

The main character is not a major actor in the world; she commands no forces and wields no power. But as a duchess she has the ear of the queen, and much of the book is spent either trying to advise the queen on how to fix problems, or cataloguing the events of her era as they impact her family and her life. Her main focus in keeping her family safe.

What I really got into was the court of King Henry VI and how utterly ridiculous it came across. The king and queen (Margaret of Anjou) are shameless about rewarding their friends (the Lancasters) and insulting their enemies (the Yorks). As a reader I kept looking at their decisions thinking, ‘How do you think this will end well? You’re so blatantly playing favorites and then having a tantrum when things go sideways.’ I presume this has at least some basis in historical reality.

Also, I found the book was amusing because I spent most of it annoyed with the characters. First the English lords who burn Joan of Arc, then the Lancasters for being corrupt, then the Yorks for not respecting the Lancaster king. Not a lot of good guys in the leadership.

Anyway, I had fun reading the start to this series. I’ve already got the second one from the library, though I can’t start it until I finish the interim book.

Book Report: Red Phoenix Burning

‘Red Phoenix Burning’ (2016) is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for a while now. Written by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson, it is a sequel to one of Bond’s books, ‘Red Phoenix’ (1990), which is a book I’ve read a dozen times over the years. 

Both books deal with a war on the Korean peninsula. In Red Phoenix, it was a North Korean invasion of South Korea. In Red Phoenix Burning, it’s the opposite. Early in the book, a coup attempt in North Korea sparks a civil war. That’s bad enough, but the question on everyone’s mind is about North Korea’s WMDs: the biological, chemical and nuclear weapons North Korea has developed and hidden about the country. As the political and military situation develops, both characters within North Korea trying to survive, and characters outside of Korea trying to contain the situation, have to contend with the ramifications of the choices before them, but how other actors will respond and possible escalate. 

What’s nice about revisiting this story after 25 years is running into several characters from the first book and seeing how they have matured. The young officer getting confident in his commission is now a decision maker for a general; others are now generals. The children of several characters return to influence the story in their own way. It’s a connection that I can appreciate in sequels. 

The book does two other things well. First – and this is something the first book did well – it captures the essence of international politics of a Korean civil war. The US and South Korea are very much worried about WMDs, but they also must worry about the Chinese and their military forces; China has its own interests and policies and will not just sit by as China is unified under an American-allied government, nor can it ignore WMDs any more than the US can. The interplay of the two, and how they influence the decision-making processes of the characters on the ground in Korea, makes up a huge chunk of the story. 

Second, the book hits a lot of points of how modern technology is used in warfare. From the prevalence of drones for intelligence gathering to the use of tablets by officers to view and disseminate information, the differences between a 1980’s war and a 2010’s war is striking. And that doesn’t take into account the differences in tanks, artillery and aircraft from book to book. It’s a completely different feel of warfare. 

That being said, the book does have a few let downs. Where Book 1 had a lot of combat, particularly infantry combat, but also submarine, airplane and commando actions, Book 2 has much less. With the story focusing on the politics and the interplay, Book 2 glosses over the fighting. Most of the combat that we get to read is the important things that influence the decision making; a bloody nose to get attention, an air strike to cut off an axis of advance, etc. I would go so far as to say the difference between books is due to the difference of emphasis; Book 1 needed to emphasize the grind-nature of that war, while this one is more about the higher politics and WMD hunting, so it doesn’t need combat scenes to tell its story. But it’s still a noticeable difference. 

Still, it was overall a very enjoyable book. There was nothing that made me shake my head and think ‘Oh, come on!’ I found the decisions and their consequences to be believable. I’m glad I read it and look forward to reading it again someday. 

Recommended: For a nice techno-thriller with a heavy strategic/political emphasis. 

Not Recommended: If you’re looking for non-stop action or combat heavy storytelling.