A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The title can be a metaphor for many things in this book, but is most obviously taken from the emblem of Edward IV after the natural phenomenon of a parhelion, in which ice crystals in the air gives the optical illusion of 3 suns, occurred during a decisive battle early in his career.
This is a very well written historical novel, full of vivid descriptions and flashes of poetry, such as one soldier’s thoughts before a battle, “They’d all die here in this grey dark, this fog that smothered the field like a shroud.” The characters are sharply drawn, their personalities distinct: the vengeful wrath of Marguerite d’Anjou, the haughtiness of Elizabeth Woodville, the sneaky opportunistic Duke of Clarence, the devotion of Francis Lowell. The secondary characters are as fleshed out as the main ones, something that many authors don’t do. And the family entanglements are made clear, despite so many similar names; all the Richards, Cecilys, Edwards and Georges.
We first meet Richard III as a sensitive seven year old and follow him as he becomes a formidable battlefield commander and finally, king. There is a love story, not just with his wife Anne, who loved him since childhood, but also with his brother, Edward, who is king before him. It is this relationship that makes up the bulk of the book, Richard is fiercely loyal to his elder brother throughout his life, despite having very different personalities. Edward is a charming, outgoing womanizer, Richard a serious, moralistic man. He is not a hunchback in this version, though mention is made of scars from a shoulder injury in his youth.
But we don’t really get to know him, as the third person narrative does not give a glimpse to his inner thoughts, though the author does for a number of the other characters. His actions are all described from the outside and we are to deduce his feelings from that. This felt lacking, a main character ought to have more depth. I wanted to know him better and felt cheated that he was kept so remote.
It was one of a few flaws in the book. One of the most disturbing ones takes place at the very beginning of the book when Lancastrian soldiers invade the town where his family is living. His mother flees the castle with young Richard and his brother George. Up till then, they were mostly cared for by their nanny, Joan, but for some reason she doesn’t go with the family and ends up being raped by the soldiers. Why did their noble mother suddenly start taking care of her own children? Why was Joan not with them as they fled? It’s inconsistent.
There is a feeling of gloominess throughout the book, perhaps because there are so few happy occasions; so many battles and plots and betrayals. Though not quite as bleak as some of Cecilia Holland’s novels, the feeling becomes a bit oppressive in the latter half of the book. Richard’s brief reign was filled with so much conflict and sadness.
Penman thoughtfully included an Afterwards in her book, telling us what happened to all of the major personalities, something that was much appreciated. She also refutes some of the myths surrounding Richard with logic and even traces the origins of some of the rumors. It is a fitting ending to a book that is sweeping, sad and worthy of inclusion in the legend of the troubled king that was Richard III.
Ballantine paperback 1982 936 pp. ISBN 0-345-36313-2