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Book Review: The Seventh Son - Reay Tannahill
Headline Books, 14.99 pounds (GrB), 2001, 339 pages, ISBN 0-7472-7042-2
Richard III, the most maligned and shortest-reigning king in England's history, has been the subject of many novels. Does Tannahill have anything new to say about him? How does her portrait of Richard compare with other modern fictional portrayals? How close is Tannahill to the picture painted by available historical evidence?
Tannahill does have something new to say. Her Richard is closer to the subject of Charles Ross' biography of 1982 than that of Paul Murray Kendall, published in 1955, which inspired a number of modern novelists. We meet Richard at age 18, just after the battle of Tewkesbury. The successful and confident young commander is eager to claim the rewards for loyalty to his brother and king, Edward IV, and anxious to do everything possible to fulfill the new responsibilities Edward has placed on him. Ross cited Richard's activity in many land deals during his time as Duke of Gloucester as evidence of ruthless self-interest and greed on Richard's part, although he didn't supply details. Tannahill seizes upon this part of the record, using it to show that Richard was following a strategy designed to aid him in fulfilling the duty laid upon him by Edward IV, of keeping the North of England loyal to the king. In order to do his job he needed an adequate income (which would flow from his estates), and the right connections (which Tannahill uses to explain his decision to marry Anne Neville, although she has him fall in love with his wife after they marry).
Tannahill's Richard is vigorous, decisive, and even ruthless when self-interest dictates, and I found this both attractive and congruent with contemporary fifteenth-century figures. He also doesn't fully trust anyone's counsel but his own, which contributes to his downfall. He is loyal and caring to those he loves, but Edward's death removes the source of his power and forces him to scramble for his own survival.
Secondary characters are also strongly portrayed, if lacking the fully rounded dimensions of those created by Sharon Kay Penman, Meredith Whitford, or Rhoda Edwards. Margaret Beaufort, Tom Stanley, Henry Tudor, and William Catesby are given larger, more important roles; and the characters of William Hastings, Anthony Rivers, and Anne Neville receive new and more complex feelings and motivations, directed as much by self-interest as by loyalty to king or family.
Tannahill's writing is straightforward, with a basic vocabulary. Complexity of language, like character development, is limited. However, her storytelling is accessible and I found the book a real page-turner. The earlier section,depicting Richard's character and career as Lord of the North, seems solidly based on available evidence. Richard's activities after Edward's death can be reconciled with surviving historical records, incomplete and contradictory though they may be. Her depiction of the fate of Edward's sons felt strained, as though Tannahill is trying to fit all of the Richard III legends into her story.
The Seventh Son isn't the best Ricardian novel yet, but it adds a new and intriguing facet to the lexicon of Ricardiana.
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