Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

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Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A meaty hist fict feast about The Rose of Raby Castle, Mother of Kings, Plantagenet Cecily Neville. (Yes all the same person.) Along with her half-brother Cuthbert, Cecily tells a ripping yarn of divided family, loyalties and crown seasoned with a bit of romance on the side, but not enough to scare the horses.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: December 2014
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0007447015

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Cecily Neville, daughter of Ralph Earl, of Westmorland and Joan Beaufort, puts her obligations above all else which is why she marries Richard Plantagenet, third Duke of York and her father's ward. Together they will start a royal line that will go down the centuries but not without pain, conflict and, of course, the Wars of the Roses.

Joanna Hickson is mining a very popular seam in historical fiction at the moment. There was a time when the Tudors ruled the hist-fict bookshelves but, although they're still there, another dynasty is gaining prominence. Kick-started by Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series and not exactly hindered when a certain royal body was found beneath a certain car park, the Plantagenets seem to have become the new Tudors. (That's a statement that will make historians shudder, but you know what I mean!)

Joanna's choice of Cecily as our guide into the birth pangs of the War of the Roses is interesting. She's a major hub on the British royal family tree being the granddaughter of John of Gaunt and having mothered, after a shaky start, Edward IV and Richard III (yes, the car park king), all English monarchs since apparently trace direct lineage back to her.

From this we suss that Cecily may have done her marriage bed duty like a good medieval wife, but she wasn't as passive as her peers were trained to be. She enjoyed the cut and thrust of politics, supporting her less-than-nice husband despite the dangers. (By the way, Joanna cleverly uses different variations of shortenings of the name Richard so we can tell our Duke from our future king etc.) As Joanna ably demonstrates, Cecily's own family, the Nevilles, are riven by perceived injustices perpetrated by cousins, uncles and brothers and so are ripe to split even further under Yorkist and Lancastrian colours. Not knowing which side each will pick and whether they'll change their minds only adds to the perilous uncertainty that pervaded the times.

Cecily may regale us with her own story but Joanna has moved on from one of my miffs in her earlier novel The Agincourt Bride in which we had to stay at home with the ladies while battles raged on elsewhere. This time Joanna has fleshed out the historical shadow of one of Cecily's half-siblings, Cuthbert of Middleham. (Factoid incoming: Daddy Ralph had more than 20 legitimate children, and possibly many more born of passing fancies.)

I rather like kind, thrusting Cuthbert (Cuddy to Cecily); through his alternating chapters we go where Cecily can't take us and the novel is richer for it. Also he allows us to witness contemporary views as he battles with the scars of bastardy, trying to remain true to himself and his sister against prevailing attitudes while losing his heart to a fictitious forlorn hope. Indeed, Joanna balances history and fiction perfectly and – most importantly – her notes at the back inform us which is which.

In this way we also know that a relationship in the novel between Cecily and Sir John Neville (another of history's unsubstantial spectres) didn't happen but it does add some romance and a reason why Sir John remained single for so long. (Aaaaw!) However, this is a story of meaty historical substance with minor sub-plots of amorousness rather than vice versa so there's nothing to scare the horses or a passing male reader.

It also gives us an opportunity to see history from differing angles. For instance was William de la Pole the emissary without a choice as Conn Iggulden paints him as or do we prefer Joanna's characters' thoughts: traitor to the nation?

Does the novel have any faults? I have one minor whinge. There are a couple of moments when a character tells another what they would already know in order to tell us, but just a couple. Whereas the sense of period is tangible and factoids are numerous (e.g. one Maundy Thursday meal was so frugal they only had the one course. Ok, it contained 20 different dishes, but it was just the one course). So I honestly didn't mind for long.

Oh yes, not only has Joanna Hickson struck a golden seam of an era, she's also showing us the gold of her writing ability. (Corny but true!) Red Rose, White Rose puts her right up there with the Dr Philippas of the genre and justifiably so.

(Thank you, Harper for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you would like more of Joanna please do try The Agincourt Bride. If you're a Plantagenetophile, this is your lucky year! Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses Trilogy is one of the best hist-ficts around and the first book Wars of the Roses: Stormbird (Wars of the Roses 1, a good place to start.

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