Review 1372: The Greenlanders

The Greenlanders took me quite a while to read, and that wasn’t because it wasn’t interesting. My hardcopy book was 558 pages, which isn’t that long a book for me. The type was small, however, and the pages dense, so that I would guess it normally would be closer to 1000 pages long.

This novel is also unusual because it is written in the tradition of the Nordic sagas. Although it centers on the activities of the family of Asgeir Gunnarsson, it also tells of other events taking place in the country, beginning in about 1345 until roughly 1415. Because of this style, the actions of the people are described, but there is little conventional character delineation.

Much of the novel has to do with the events spawned by a feud between Asgeir Gunnarsson’s family and that of their nearest neighbor, Ketil Erlendsson. Asgeir and Ketil are wealthy landowners, but life on Greenland is hard, and no landowner can be assured he or someone in his household will not starve during a difficult winter.

In fact, the Greenlanders don’t know it, but in the mid-14th century, they are at the beginning of a long downhill slide for the country. Although ships used to arrive with relative frequency from Norway or Iceland, at the beginning of the novel, the first ship arrives in 10 years. The Greenlanders hear that much of Europe has been overcome by the plague, and so many people have died that the church has not been able to send priests to Greenland nor has the bishop been replaced.

In fact, Greenland has already suffered some diminishment. There used to be settlers in the Western Settlement but now it is deserted. As time progresses, more and more farms in the Eastern Settlement are abandoned as farmers become unable to support their households. The novel documents famines, illnesses, outlawry, the loss of laws and the country law-keeping institutions as well as weddings, births, and deaths.

Despite its nontraditional approach, I was deeply absorbed by this book and particularly by the events in the lives of Gunnar Asgeirsson, Asgeir’s son, and his daughter Margret Asgeirsdottir. I was particularly struck by how similar the lives of these 14th century Greenlanders were to those of the Icelanders described in Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. I think I mentioned in my review of that book that I assumed it was set in the Middle Ages, only to be floored when I realized it was set in the 20th century.

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Day 1280: The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors

Cover for The Last White RoseI’ve read a couple of histories by Desmond Seward now, one of which, The Wars of the Roses, did a much better job of explaining the complications of those wars than any other book I’ve read. In The Last White Rose, Seward details the attempts by the first two Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to wipe out the Plantagenet line.

Real or imagined conspiracies against the Tudors haunted the reigns of both these kings. At first, those conspiracies that actually existed had their roots in Henry VII’s very tenuous claim on the throne. There were still plenty of Yorkists around, and some of them had much better claims. It was Henry VII’s knowledge of these plots that led him to construct a complex web of spies for the state. Later, his growing paranoia led him to execute young Warwick, whose only crime was his birth.

Although Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of stamping out conspiracies, as he grew older and more erratic, he conducted a reign of terror. Courtiers were charged for slight errors or none at all. Henry succeeded in killing off almost every person with Plantagenet blood. His paranoia was manipulated by Thomas Cromwell, who invented conspiracies to rid himself or Henry of enemies.

Seward could be writing novels, his style is so easy to read and interesting. Although he introduces many players, he is somehow able to interest readers in all their fates. I found this another fascinating book about this period.

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Day 1151: Henry VI, Part III

Cover of Henry VI Part IIIHenry VI, Part III must have been a difficult play to write, because it telescopes the major events of years into five acts. Its action is a little tiresome, as one side of the conflict is in the ascendent, then another. However, the longer speeches in this early play are beginning to show Shakespeare’s stuff. And certainly, for audiences of the day, who didn’t know their history, it was probably exciting.

The play opens where Part II left off. Henry has just been defeated by the Yorkists at the first battle of St. Albans. Shortly thereafter, he makes a deal with York that allows him to rule during his lifetime but makes York his heir. But both York and Queen Margaret soon break the vow. York is preparing to resume conflict so that he can be king when Queen Margaret attacks in an effort to protect her son’s rights.

What was most interesting to me in this play is the depiction of several of the main characters. Queen Margaret is a real viper and is reviled by several characters, even though she is just trying to protect her son. In fact, I believe it was this play in part that was responsible for her reputation in history.

Although Henry is depicted as saintly and all for peace, he is not shown as mentally incapacitated, as he was for much of his life. Warwick, despite changing sides and being ultimately on the wrong one (as far as the Tudors are concerned), is rather heroic. And Gloucester, later Richard III, is set up beautifully for the subsequent play, Richard III.

All in all, I thought that the second play moved along better. I was glad to contrast this trilogy with the other reading I have done on the Wars of the Roses.

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Day 1142: Bloodline

Cover for BloodlineI have to admit that my attention span wavered during parts of Bloodline, Conn Iggulden’s third Wars of the Roses novel. I found the emphasis on war in the first half of the book less interesting than the political maneuvering that occupied most of the first two novels. And a good portion of the middle of the novel is just about one battle, which, even though some interesting and important things happened during it, was still a battle, related in too much detail. It was only the last section, after the crowning of Edward IV, that somewhat reignited my interest.

The novel begins with Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s wife, in ascendance, even though Henry is a captive of the Yorkists. She has gathered together a huge army, even bringing in Scots from up north. But she has made a mistake in letting her army loot every town and village they’ve passed on the way to London. For, when she gets to London, the city won’t let her in.

The Yorkists, now led by Richard of Warwick, are gathering their forces to fight her. Meanwhile, Edward of York, the young man whose father was made the heir to the throne by Parliament, is both goofing off and grieving for his father. But Edward finally decides to pull himself together, and when he does, he declares himself king.

Towton is a decisive battle in this segment of the Wars of the Roses. After it, Margaret has to flee, and Edward begins his reign. Ironically, his choice of bride in the rapacious Elizabeth Woodville creates the same problems for him as Margaret of Anjou’s favoring of the Percys did for Henry VI.

Like the other novels, this one shifts its viewpoint from one character to another, but it is mostly from the point of view of Richard of Warwick. I had some sympathy for Richard, but I missed Derry Brewer, who fades out of the novel in the middle after being a major character in the other two books.

All in all, I think this novel could have been much shorter. It flagged in several places. Despite the roving narration, you don’t really get to know any characters well. If there is going to be a fourth book in the series (the wars aren’t over, after all), I think I’ll skip it.

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Day 1118: Henry VI, Part II

Cover for Henry VI, Part IIJust by coincidence, I began reading Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series right around the same time as I started reading these three plays about Henry VI. I found it interesting that Iggulden’s first book, Stormbird, begins almost exactly in the same place as does Henry VI, Part II. Suffolk has brokered Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, but Henry’s nobles are shocked to learn that the price is to return the provinces of Maine and Anjou to France. Further, the French are not even paying a dowry.

As with Part I, Henry isn’t much of a character in this play, the intent of which is to tell the events of his reign. But whereas he was a child in the first play, this absence in Part II helps to signify his ineffectuality as a ruler. When we see him, he is kindly, but he is unable even to keep his nobles from fighting in his presence.

Besides the struggle for power among the nobles, we are witness to some of the important events in the King’s reign. These include the disgrace of the Duchess of Gloucester and the murder of her husband, the disgrace and murders of Suffolk and Somerset, and Jack Cade’s rebellion.

This play is supposed to be the best of the three Henry VI plays, and apparently Shakespeare’s contemporaries found it exciting because they were unaware of their history. Especially at the beginning, it certainly provides a cogent explanation of the problems of Henry’s realm. Unfortunately, he was not the man to handle them.

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Day 1110: Margaret of Anjou

Cover for Margaret of AnjouMargaret of Anjou, the second book of Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series, begins in 1454 with an ambush. Angry at the lands that have been going to the Nevilles, York’s allies, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, attacks a Neville wedding party on its way home from the wedding. York has been acting as Protector and Defender of the Realm while King Henry VI is suffering from mental illness. Although York has ruled well, he has favored his own allies over the friends of the King, even to murdering or imprisoning some, and has earned the enmity of the Queen, Margaret of Anjou.

But the tide is about to turn. Henry awakes from his stupor, amazed to find that Margaret has borne him an heir. He immediately dismisses York and Salisbury, Richard Neville, from his court. Soon after, he and his allies ride out to bring them to heel, starting the battles of the Wars of the Roses.

While the Yorkists reluctantly turn to treason, this book seems a little more balanced than the first between the two sides. Salisbury and York clearly have their reasons for resentment of the king’s favorites, and it is true that Henry is not an effective ruler. Still, no one hesitates in plunging the country into years of uproar and instability.

Margaret of Anjou

Like the first novel, this one switches point of view between the main characters, including Derry Brewer, the king’s spymaster, who is one of the few fictional characters. This technique allows us to understand the various positions, for some are self-righteously explaining away their own treachery. York is presented as a tragic character, while Margaret, who has often been reviled in history, is treated sympathetically. After her husband sinks back into his stupor, she does everything she can to protect her son.

I am continuing to enjoy this series, which, although it simplifies the many conflicts of this time, brings clarity to the main figures and events.

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Day 1087: Stormbird

Cover for StormbirdBased on the recommendation of Helen of She Reads Novels, I decided to try Conn Iggulden’s series Wars of the Roses. This period of British history has always been fascinating to me, yet confusing, and I have read several nonfiction books about it, as well as a few stand-alone novels about major players in the wars.

When I picked up what I thought was the first book in the series, Margaret of Anjou, I realized it was the second. So, I had to hurriedly get a copy of Stormbird. This accident assures that I will be reading at least the first two of the series.

The novel begins in 1437. King Henry VI, who is clearly not the warrior his father was, has been ceaselessly praying for an end to the Hundred Years War with France. He commands his spymaster, Derry Brewer, to find a way to a truce.

The agreement made with France is that Henry will marry Margaret of Anjou in exchange for the lands of Anjou and Maine, which Henry’s father won back from the French. At no time does Henry give thought to the countless English families who will be displaced in these two provinces.

The point of view moves from person to person throughout the novel, but no one character is central to the story. Some of these characters are the young Margaret of Anjou; Derry Brewer; the loyal William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk; Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; Thomas Woodchurch, a former longbowman who is displaced from his farm by the truce and decides to fight; and Jack Cade, a resentful renegade who leads a band of Kentish men against London. Most of these characters were actual historical people, with the exception of Derry Brewer.  At first, I thought this constant shift in point of view would become annoying, but I finally realized it allowed me to get to know those characters better.

Iggulden admits to compressing time, making a period of almost 20 years seem like months. I think he could have just as easily indicated some passing of time, because it is occasionally jarring to think only a few months have passed, only to be brought up short by remarks, for example, that the king and queen have been married for years without issue.

Although most of the books I’ve read agree that toward the end of the wars, anyway, the Yorkists had the better claim to the throne, in this preamble to the wars, the Duke of York is definitely the villain. Although he is in charge of Normandy at the time of the truce, he does nothing to protect the fleeing English from the French armies and actively works to blame his inaction on Suffolk, who does the best he can when he takes over York’s position. I notice that the novel is dedicated to a descendant of John of Gaunt, whose immediate descendants made up the Lancastrian side of the conflict.

Overall, I found the novel quick moving and suspenseful, with interesting characters. I’ll be happy to read the second book in this series.

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