The quote from The Guardian on the back of the book compared it to a mix of AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett. Perhaps, but I’d throw in Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco. There’s something in the mix of the realist portrayal of medieval life blending with constant surrealist tangents. What they really meant though was that the book will reward multiple readings, it is enjoyable first time round but there are so many allusions and references that you can come back again and again.
Irwin starts his book with Anthony Woodville dying at the Battle of Towton before being resurrected with an unfortunate tendency to see the dead walking. The book then follows the real life Anthony Woodville’s path through the Wars of the Roses: switching sides to the Yorkists, temporary exile, a court favourite under Edward IV, before quickly falling out of favour under Richard III. Along the way, he battles the Bastard of Burgandy in a two day duel and delves into his literary interests – translating works into English and even having them printed by William Caxton.
As a bibliophile and as a medieval man, Woodville explores the world through stories and rumours. And so Irwin uses these throughout – as characters meet they share stories, and these tales shift and change as their context changes. Thus the tone of the book swings wildly: with a very funny story about housebreakers using tortoises with candles mounted on their backs, alongside darker, almost tragic material. Familiar stories like Appointment in Samarra show up too – I’m sure there would be even more, if my mythology knowledge was on a par with Irwin’s!
The characters in the book are fantastic too. Not necessarily deep, but certainly memorable. The scheming alchemist George Ripley, the Machiavellian constable John Tiptoft (known as “butcher of England”) and the mysterious writer Thomas Malory all particularly caught my imagination. Irwin conjures a strange sort of world – rich and detailed yet shallow and mysterious; a last flourishing of romance before the modern world begins to kick in. It’s imaginative, bizarre and (in truth) at points I wasn’t really sure what on earth was going on; but that just will just spur me to read it again – it’s that sort of book.