Crown of Fear, by Derek Birks


A swift, engaging and historically immersive reading experience.
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The Wars of the Roses draw to a close, along with Birks’ multi-generational historical saga in Crown of Fear – the seventh volume of the series. The Elder family’s fortunes have long been caught between the feuding houses of York and Lancaster in a war which has seen many members of the family already meet their ends. Now, pushed to desperate action, the exiled John Elder throws his lot in behind the untried Earl of Richmond – Henry Tudor – in an effort to end his family’s troubles. Meanwhile, lawyer turned king’s councillor, Sir William Catesby, has sworn to end the Elder line for good. What follows is a rich, fast paced historical drama, full of intrigues, political machinations and battles.

Birks is accomplished at creating believable historical characters who will nevertheless resonate with a modern audience. As the plot unwinds, the reader is swept up in the struggles of each of the Elders in turn – from dour, fatalistic Eleanor, to her sister, Emma Radcliffe – whose circumstances are much reduced but who has never given up thinking like a lady – to the irrepressible and courageous Margaret Elder. And then there is John Elder himself, a man driven to extremes who is still a relatable and likeable character. Nor are we only given such accomplished character portraits as the Elders. Crown of Fear crosses all social strata, giving us social climbers, men at arms, common soldiers, peasants, disowned bastard sons and women fallen on hard times as well as those of noble stock. Admirably, Birks does not fall into common and entirely inaccurate historical fiction traps such as, for example, assuming women didn’t do much except wait for the men to return from the battlefield. Every character who appears on page, is there for a reason. But don’t be tempted to get too attached – the Wars of the Roses were a bloody business.

The plot itself hinges on Catesby’s ambition and personal grudge against the Elders, clashing with their natural desire to reclaim some of what they lost. Catesby is an intriguing character in his own right, a consummate schemer who still shows enough flashes of humanity to avoid becoming a moustache twirling villain. Fans of the historical time period should be aware that while this book does encompass the Battle of Bosworth Field, the deciding victory for Henry VII’s pitiful army, the focus of the book is skewed more towards the changing fortunes of the Elder family. This is no bad thing since it allows scope for a slice of medieval drama, as well as a look at the political structures of the time. There is plenty of wry humour to balance the inevitable tragedy; and plenty of action to balance the necessary in-plot explanations of various intrigues. Overall, this book is extremely well structured, with the pace carrying the reader along at a decent clip but not so fast that they would lose the thread.

It’s no easy task to manage such a large ensemble cast in a comparatively small amount of space, certainly not while giving all the characters enough relevant tasks while still writing character-first engagements. Birks has managed that and more. Overall, this was a swift, engaging and historically immersive reading experience. A worthy end to a great series. Highly recommended.

J.A.Ironside is the author of The King’s Knight series of novels.