A historical fiction based against the backdrop of the War of Roses - a reimagining well done. Grim, cold and brutal - If ever a war-novel was called atmospheric, then this one fits right into that mould.
I got a NetGalley approved copy and Hilary Mantel's faith in Toby Clements' ability was enough to spur me on with the reading. And the writing - Damn, it's good - kept me glued to the happenings as the War of Roses played out in the background to another intense personal drama about two lives unfolding in the shadow of this war. It's raw and heart-rending - the story of Thomas and Katherine;
A searing narrative that will definitely stay with you after you've closed the book.
However - this being a second book in a series, there were a lot of nuances that I kept missing. Especially with respect to the characterization. The plot itself wasn't a zinger - the story follows the lives of Katherine and Thomas - a couple of star-crossed lovers who were separated at the end of book-one - as they follow the army of King Henry of Lancaster trying to seize back the throne armed with a secret that could change the course of the war - and in the process, discover themselves and each other.
The initial suspense kept me riveted with the narration was unreliable and jumpy. And the descriptions were lurid and heavy – visceral is a good term I suppose – a child-birth in gory detail and a farmstead scuffle that involved shooting and a good body-count. Enough to keep me on the book and the intimate manner in which the POVs unspool didn’t let me go. (Toby uses the war as a good backdrop but it is the excruciating details of a hard grim life led by those affected by war that makes for excellent reading. An experience that’s bloody hard to just flip past or ignore. )
The story starts off in the dilapidated Castle Comcroft - where Katherine - leading a double life as Lady Margaret married to the blind Richard Farkenham gets involved in her Castle-Keep’s wife’s child-birthing. As chance would have it, it goes horribly wrong - and then she stands accused of murdering the mother by a "paid" jury.
In the meanwhile, Thomas returns home to his brother’s farm with little or no memory of where or who he is. But a scuffle with a party of hard war-grizzled veteran soldiers out to loot the farm brings him around to his senses - though still with a woozy memory of what he has been upto in the past. (If like me, you haven't read book one, this one's going to haunt you throughout the book!)
Their lives collide once again in the same priory that featured in their long past – the two had escaped the clutches of the evil lord Giles Riven from here – and in an uncanny reliving of their past – the two unite and escape once again. Under the guises they had used when they were little more than just kids. Katherine posing as Kit – trained in surgical skills and Thomas – an archer. Till here, I was buoyed on by the suspense – to find out how these two disparate plotlines are going to connect. And meet it does – through some quirky twist of fate. ( Or the author’s steadfast plodding plot to ensure this happens!)
After this, the book essentially is a journey. The sort of phlegmatic, inevitable plodding on towards a war that threatens to spill into their lives. Of a group of reluctant group or camp of soldiers. But by the time the war unfolds – In spite of the name (War of Roses) there is nothing romantic about this one. It’s a damp dark brutal war. Of hapless archers at the front loosening that dark torrential rain of arrows into the sky and waiting to be impaled by similar such as shot by the enemy, the slow crush of luckless infantry stampeding each other and the inevitable rout that follows when the will or courage runs out - towards the climax, a lot of the hooks in the initial parts of the story cease to exist.
For me – this was the undoing of the book. A secret leverage that Thomas and Katherine discover during their escape from the Priory which should probably see the tide of the war turn – gets lost in a bizarre turn of events. Older villains reappear in their lives and both Katherine or Kit and Thomas are as clueless and confused a protagonist that ever was. There is no direction to their lives – being swept away by the tides of war and the will of stronger men – and personally I just couldn’t stomach this. Thomas, an incredibly strong-willed individual – strong as an oxen, a gifted archer and obviously madly in love with Katherine cannot disclose his feelings to her. Kit on the other hand, posing as a boy, becomes famous as a gifted surgeon and is pressed into service by their liege-lord Grey who whisks her around England – on the trial of King Henry to whom they have pledged their allegiance to. I found it hard to believe that nobody in the soldier camps discovered the disguise of a grown woman acting as a boy. This took the wind out of my sails as far as enjoying the book was concerned.
There are not too many side characters who stand out. Grey, Payne the King’s surgeon, Horner the captain or Jack, the boy whose life Thomas spares on early in the book who goes on to become their steadfast friend – are all there to fill up specific roles and no more. Grey was perhaps the most colourful for his tendency to brag, bet and swear a bit. The others were boring additions. King Henry is presented as the most uninspiring leader you could fight for.
What pulled me to the end was this sympathy for the star-crossed lovers and their fates as determined by a useless war. The hard life of the sixteenth century is competently portrayed by Toby – he pulls no punches and the life of a foot soldier – a powerless pawn in a petty war – is drawn up beautifully in the book. Be warned that there are scenes dark and detailed drenched in copious amounts of blood – Mainly in Kit’s experiences as a surgeon – rooting around for an arrow-head buried deep inside one’s body is one riveting scene captured in gory detail by Toby’s powerful writing.
In conclusion, the second part to Toby Clements’ Kingmaker saga – that reunites Katherine and Thomas and continues their intense personal drama set against a bloody and pointless war is a good solid book – but one that lacks a definitive direction just like the war seesawing back and forth and meandering like the hapless commons – stuck in the follower- army camps. Fans of the first book would definitely find this to their liking and those new to the adventures of Kit and Thomas would find it grisly and enthralling enough if they like their stories bloody and brutal.