It is 1460. A young nun, Katherine, is attacked while outside her convent’s walls by bandits led by the lawless son of Sir Giles Riven. She is saved by a monk, Brother Thomas, whose natural talent for fighting is borne out by the loss of Riven’s eye. There can be no safety for Katherine and Thomas now. The vengeful rage of Sir Giles is matched only by the brutality of the prioress. There is no alternative but for the two to flee, Katherine disguised as the boy Kit, into a world of which they have no experience. Thomas believes that they may find forgiveness in the holy city of Canterbury but their plans are waylaid before they are almost begun.
They are taken under the wing of ex-Pardoner and, for very different reasons, outcast Robert Daud who has treasures of some sort or another in his bag. Events take an upper hand and the small group find themselves ensnared by the warring factions of the day, the deadly duel of York and Warwick against the king and his stronger foreign queen. Thomas, an archer in the making, and Kit, gifted with healing hands, become trapped in loyalties, patronised by Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard, caught on a course that will take them to Calais, to south west Wales and to sites of slaughter in the Wars of the Roses, most notably and horrifically the Battle of Towton.
Toby Clements’ Kingmaker is an extraordinary novel and one that will not be easy to do justice to here. I am most used to (and normally prefer) reading historical novels that take as their main characters leading figures of the day, the people that shape the action described. Katherine and Thomas, though, are perfect witnesses to the tragedy and appalling mess of the Wars of the Roses. By having experienced little of the world due to their confinement in religious institutions, they are as unprepared for what awaits as anyone might be. They have to learn to recognise the names, the heraldry, the allegiances of the great men of the day. It takes great skill but not as much skill as simply staying alive. If their true identities were discovered, Thomas and Katherine would be hung (or worse) as apostates. They have very few options. The patronage of Sir John is a solution of sorts. But they have to earn their keep. They also have to deal with the spiritual and philosophical trauma of what they have suffered. Their institutions were violent and loveless, their knowledge of God is troubled and needs support. Katherine has no experience of men and yet here she is, dressed as a boy, living among soldiers. The way she manages it is not dealt with lightly. Her efforts and courage are treated with great respect by the author.
Told in the present tense, the narrative is not only richly alive, it is also vibrant and immediate with the unexpected and the sudden. Death can come at any time, as can discovery, and for many of the characters in this story there can be no happy ending. Although I’m usually uncomfortable with present tense in historical fiction, yet again Toby Clements challenges my sense of comfort by excelling in telling his story in the most perfect of ways. Reading this novel, unbelievably a debut, you almost feel like you’re alongside the characters, not just Katherine and Thomas, but many others who fight with them or against them.
This is a merciless and savage story, contrasting with our affection and worry for the main characters. The elements make their force known, whether at sea, on mountains or on the battlefield. Ice, snow, mud, rain, blood punish the body and there are sections in Kingmaker which are truly upsetting. Several scenes stand out but, for me, the pages set in Wales are unforgettable. The violence is unsparing and so too are the accounts of medical treatments by Kit. She is worried and this is transmitted to us by the way in which she almost talks us through it. But there is one scene in particular – and you’ll certainly know it when you read it! – that I most certainly wouldn’t want to read within a couple of hours of eating. But this isn’t gratuitous, it’s in perfect keeping with the story and the struggle of Katherine and Thomas to fit in and come out on the other side.
As for the Battle of Towton, without doubt this is the most harrowing and vivid battle scene that I have ever read.
What a book! This superb novel, alive with fire, blood and mud, has brought me as close to the Wars of the Roses as I could ever want to get. Historical fiction at its best, not least because it reveals the heart and human tragedy that suffered in a civil war that was fought around towns and landscapes that we know so well today and yet they now show so few scars from this violence and division. Normal people, not just nobles and knights, suffered horrendously in this war, as in any war, and yet, as Kingmaker shows, away from the battlefield, in the convents, houses and towns of 15th-century Europe, life could be almost as dreadful. But this isn’t a depressing tale, it’s simply mesmerising.
Kingmaker is one of the finest historical novels I’ve read and fortunately it’s just the first in a trilogy. I look forward to much more from Toby Clements.
I was fortunate enough to have been sent not just one hardback of this magnificent book, but two. This isn’t a formal competition, but I’d like to give one away to a good home. Unfortunately, this has to be within the UK due to postage costs (it’s a big book!). If you’d like your name to be entered into the virtual hat, just leave a comment below and I’ll randomly select a winner in a few days.