Treason is the story of Richard III, beginning with his childhood as the youngest son of the Duke of York and moving on through the various battles of the Wars of the Roses, the reign of his brother Edward IV, Richard’s own time as King and his eventual defeat by Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth. The story is narrated by Martin Robsart, one of only a few fictional characters in the book. As Richard’s cousin and closest friend, Martin is present at some of the most important moments in English history.
I thought telling the story from the perspective of Richard’s fictional cousin and best friend worked very well and I could almost believe Martin had really existed. He has his own storylines, including a romance with Innogen Shaxper (another fictional character), but his main role as narrator is to share with us his observations on Richard, Edward and the others.
In Treason, Richard is not portrayed as the evil, scheming hunchback he is often believed to be, thanks to Shakespeare’s play. Instead, he is shown as being brave, intelligent, loyal to his brother, respected by his men, and a loving husband to Anne Neville. And although his reign is so tragically cut short at Bosworth, during his brief time on the throne he proves himself to be a good king. He does have a few faults, but nothing that would make me think he was a man who was capable of murdering his own nephews or committing all the other crimes he’s been accused of. On the subject of the disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, by the way, the author offers an interesting and believable theory, though not one that I personally think is very likely.
I was impressed with the depth given to the other characters too. I thought Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, was portrayed more sympathetically than in other books I’ve read. He did some terrible things, but I see him more as a person who was weak and easily led, and his eventual fate was, for me, one of the saddest moments of the story. Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV’s wife) and her family are shown in a very negative light, but it’s worth remembering that we are seeing everybody through Martin’s eyes and as his loyalties lie firmly with Richard it’s understandable that his opinions of other characters aren’t always going to be completely unbiased.
The dialogue is quite modern – too modern at times, maybe – but I know this is something which is very difficult to get exactly right in historical fiction. I find that when an author tries to make the language sound more authentic, it can either work very well or very badly! I didn’t have a problem with the dialogue in this book and I could tell that Meredith Whitford had given a lot of attention to period detail (food, clothing etc) which made the descriptions of fifteenth century life feel very convincing. Battle scenes are an aspect of historical fiction that I sometimes find difficult to follow, but there are only a few in Treason and the author makes them easy to understand by concentrating on Martin’s emotions and personal experiences of the battle rather than giving us pages and pages of military tactics.
Reading Treason was proof, if I needed it, that it’s worth looking beyond the more popular names in historical fiction and taking a chance on a book I had never heard about before. It’s a shame this book is not better known as I’m sure many readers who enjoyed books like Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour or Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time would probably enjoy this one too. And for anyone new to Wars of the Roses fiction, this would also be a good starting point – it makes a very complicated period of history both easy to understand and fun to read about. I loved it!