Book review: Succession by Livi Michael

Succession by Livi Michael
Succession by Livi Michael
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Imagine a history lesson so real and so personal that you live alongside the characters through their triumphs and tragedies…

Livi Michael’s remarkable debut gives historical novel writing a highly original spin as she weaves a gripping story about two medieval women who took on powerful men and played them at their own dangerous game.

Juxtaposing illuminating contemporary accounts of the Wars of the Roses with breathtaking insights into the minds of the principal players, Succession puts the conflict into a compelling context whilst exploring the human cost of the bloody, bitter birth of the Tudor dynasty.

Two extraordinary and determined women, one a queen and one the mother of a king, cunningly pulled the strings as the House of Lancaster fell and the Tudors grabbed the reins.

When her husband King Henry VI began suffering frequent bouts of insanity, Margaret of Anjou ruled England in his place and became the champion of his crown while Margaret Beaufort, an heiress with strong royal links, played perilous politics to put her son Henry Tudor on the throne.

Their personal battles and their tempestuous times are the stuff of legend and Livi Michael gives them a magnificently constructed stage on which to act out the brutal dramas of the deadly Roses conflict.

In 1445, Henry VI is married by proxy to Margaret of Anjou, a 15-year-old minor French royal. She is petite and unworldly but has a vivid watchfulness that prompted Henry to fall passionately in love with her when he first saw her portrait.

Margaret is an unpopular choice with Henry’s English subjects and not only because she is French. She has come with no dowry and the young, naïve king had to broker a deal that was costly to the country in terms of land and money.

But Henry, labelled ‘either a natural fool or a holy innocent’ by his tutor, is obsessively pious and weak-minded, hemmed in by treacherous uncles and cousins from the House of Lancaster who would gladly see him toppled.

Meanwhile, four-year-old Margaret Beaufort, lonely and vulnerable, becomes a renowned heiress after the sudden death of her father, the Earl of Somerset, and predators at court are competing to be her guardian. She brings with her the Beaufort fortune and an advantageous alliance to the king.

In the years that follow, English rule in France collapses, King Henry VI loses his grip, civil war erupts, families are pitted against each other and Margaret of Anjou, now a warrior queen, is left to fight alone for her son’s position as rightful heir.

Her rival is Margaret Beaufort who, by the age of 13, had married twice and given birth to her only son, Henry, the boy who has become the focus of her love and ambitions. And when she is separated from him, her fight begins in earnest…

Michael’s inspired narrative technique opens up a window onto an age when women of rank were little more than pawns in the game of marriage and succession. Through the eyes of 15th century chroniclers and changing personal perspectives, we witness the upheaval of war, the political manoeuvring, the betrayals, the deaths and the invidious treatment of women.

By ruthlessly manipulating their status and bloodline, the two Margarets, both indomitable and ambitious, were able to overcome their female limitations and battle tirelessly and fearlessly on behalf of their sons.

Both suffered terrible hardships and devastating tragedies but their place in history was secured by their courage and resilience. Michael’s unique and revealing book pays a moving tribute to their achievements as well as allowing us to see their lives in the context of such cruel times.

An impressive and exciting debut…

(Penguin, hardback, £14.99)