By Nathen Amin
I should start this review by pointing out that I do not enjoy audiobooks and can certainly not be considered sympathetic to Richard III or the theories of Ricardians. That being said, when I came across an audiobook on the subject of Richard III I couldn’t resist giving it a listen.
Loyalty by historian Matthew Lewis was first published in 2012 and has been well received amongst historical fiction aficionados, currently receiving on average in excess of a 4-star rating from over one hundred reviews on Amazon, an impressive statistic and indicative of its quality.
The book has been praised for its intriguing plotline that unusually takes place across two notorious reigns – that of Henry VIII and Richard III. The premise is that Tudor court artist Hans Holbein is summoned to the house of Sir Thomas More for a commission. Whilst in the presence of More the painter is exposed to the true story of Richard III by his prestigious host; Holbein is an attentive if surprised listener as More regales the life of England’s most controversial king, unveiling a king far removed from the evil monarch that the English had come to believe had briefly ruled over them half a century before. By the end of the book Holbein is entrusted with a startling piece of information that could conceivably bring about the demise of the Tudor dynasty.
Lewis’ portrayal of Richard III is sympathetic and favourable, although not to the extent as to be considered preposterous in its bias. Lewis is an unabashed Ricardian but draws his conclusions about Richard III, as a man and as a king, from historical evidence and rational analysis, a process which results in Loyalty being a step above typical Ricardian works of fiction.
His portrayal of the king depicts a pious man who was a loyal brother and a skilled soldier, albeit with character flaws such as a raging temper and innate stubbornness. It is a balanced portrayal that paints Richard exactly as he was – a man of his time with real hopes, fears, dreams and problems. He experiences the highs of battle and the lows of personal grief. He is not a saint or a villain, but merely a man who happens to be born into the upper echelons of English society. Interesting is Richard’s nervous confidence, a feeling of worry as he bravely cuts his through late-fifteenth century English politics, rendered complex by the family dynamic between the House of York. I particularly enjoyed his portrayal as a more rounded, scheming character than a mere one-dimensional fairytale prince. During his test of wills with his brother Clarence over the Neville inheritance, he boldly bluffs by announcing Clarence can have all if Richard is only allowed the hand of Anne Neville. In most Ricardian works of fiction this device is used solely to portray Richard as a swashbuckling man of love, a romantic lead with only Anne on his mind. Lewis expands this by having Richard mentally acknowledge that this is a bluff tactic and that he does not really wish to give away the lands but is rather manipulating the situation to win a favourable outcome whereby he wins both the lands and the hand. This seems far more likely to have been the real situation to me. The motivations of Richard III would have been far more complex than general historical fiction has given him credit for.
This is what makes Lewis’ book a book worth reading, or as of this year, listening to. Towards the end of the book we encounter Lewis’ talent for creating suspenseful and emotional narrative, notably in two separate chapters that deal with drastically different situations. His grief-stricken Richard after the death of his child Edward is harrowing whilst his version of the Battle of Bosworth from Richard’s viewpoint is brutal yet captivating through its descriptive recounting. You are almost able to picture the seen unfolding through your own eyes. Particularly interesting is his tough, influential portrayal of Anne Neville, pushing Richard towards his destiny before falling apart after the death of her only child.
Loyalty has been released in audio book for 2015 and has truly enhanced the book for anyone interested in this period of history. The book has been made available via Audible and is narrated by the dulcet tones of Nigel Carrington, his interpretation of Lewis’ characters nothing other than sublime. Stretching to over 14hrs in length, there is enough content here to keep the listener occupied during long journeys or short breaks. It is certainly fascinating hearing the well-written prose spoken aloud and enables one to paint a picture of the characters as they wade through Lewis’ interpretation of the events of the late fifteenth century. A bonus is the author notes which occupy the last chapter, a historical recounting of the period which served as the basis of the story. It is always gratifying to note the research that has gone into creating historical fiction, amid glaring errors and inaccuracies that exist in the genre today. Lewis does not shy away from justifying his theories and this helps his work stand on its own two feet as a book worth buying, both in paper and audio form.
As I stated at the beginning, I generally do not enjoy the topic of Richard III as told by Ricardians or listening to audio books. My only complaint after listening to this particular Richard III audiobook is that 14 hours went too quickly.