Good history books appear to offer a refuge from the present; more meretricious ones claim to teach it unique lessons; but the best provide their readers with simultaneous relief and resonance. Penn’s Yorkist England, locked in protracted and fundamentally dishonest negotiations with France and Burgundy, stony broke but trying its hand with ever riskier loans from multinational bankers, periodically plague-struck, distantly apprised of menacing Turks, and ruled over by fratricidal chancers operating on boozy charm or scarcely sane martial reverie, is an excellent place to take an exciting, and instructive, holiday from 2019.
Penn’s first book, a biography of Henry VII – arguably the Tudor monarch with the lowest public profile – showed that he could craft pacy and convincing accounts out of 15th-century source materials. In The Brothers York, he succeeds again, smoothing the period’s interlocking alliances and multigenerational feuds into a narrative that is always readable and even thrilling... [I]t’s a measure of Penn’s skill as a narrator that he offers memorable sketches of even peripheral characters and brings a novelist’s verve to his telling of events. This doesn’t quite happen as convincingly with some of the book’s women... There are no simple analogies to be made between then and now, but Penn’s history of betrayal, backstabbing and paranoia strikes notes that still resonate today. On the brink of a new dispensation, England found itself desperately divided, its future far from certain.
Penn’s last book was Winter King, a well-received biography of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. That book was rightly praised for its fresh and lively narrative swagger, and Penn has brought all the same qualities to this new work on Edward. It is a long book, but is peppered with delightful, telling anecdotes and details. Some are comical and others grisly, but all breathe life into their subject, whose reign has proven too much for many less capable narrators to handle.