PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
'Historical fiction is founded on paradox: past generations were so different from and yet in some ways so similar to our own. In Robert Irwin’s extraordinary tale a larger paradox looms. Amply researched yet unceasingly insistent on its own fictionality, Irwin’s latest novel is like an intricate medieval tapestry or multicoloured stained-glass window, promising neither truth nor falsehood, only wonder... Irwin has brilliantly refashioned medieval history as a myth for our own time.'
'Not quite the Medieval zombie tale expected from the blurb which states: “…Hell is now full and consequently the dead stalk the land…” but Irwin’s novel still has the capacity to entertain and tell a good story. Set in the 1400s this book involves real historical figures and the bloody battles between the houses of York and Lancaster. Irwin cleverly uses the concepts of story-telling and narrative to contemplate what it takes to be a character of legend. He intertwines his central plot with myths and digressions worthy of Homer to transform what could easily be a dull report into something more mythical and magical. With disturbing tales, gruesome details of torture, a talking head and a museum of skulls, this novel will keep you in the Halloween spirit.'
'I cannot overstate how good it is.'
'The novel is a sort of marriage between AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett: one you can enjoy greatly on the first reading, but which will be even better second time round, as it’s so densely packed with learning and allusions. This is a lightning trip around 15th-century culture, European culture and indeed world culture; if you didn’t know Irwin was a scholarly man, you’d be convinced of that by the end of the book, and of his outstanding abilities as a novelist. Bravo.'
I have friends who love smart, deep fantasy novels, and can never find enough. Robert Irwin's novel The Arabian Nightmare was one of my favourite books of the early 1980s and one of the finest fantasies of the last century. His newest novel, Wonders Will Never Cease, is as erudite and well-constructed a historical fiction as The Arabian Nightmare, but is set in a medieval England that never quite was, and uses stories and fictions to illuminate and to make us gasp with awe. It's also often genuinely funny and quite beautifully written.
'How is it that I am just learning about Robert Irwin? His magical novel Wonders Will Never Cease about England, in the late 15th century, and the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster (as well as the usual problems with the French) against the backdrop of the mythic past of Arthurian England. The main character is Anthony Woodville who rises—literally—from the dead after being “killed” in battle to become an observer of his own life as a knight, courtier and inadvertent myth maker. Amazingly readable.
'Robert Irwin’s latest novel has much in common with Game of Thrones. Both are based on the gory struggle of the Wars of the Roses, both inject large amounts of magic and the occult into their narratives, and both are hugely enjoyable, fast-moving and filled with dark humour. Though Irwin uses the actual events of York versus Lancaster in 15th-century England, he is happy to change things to make a better story—and how stories are created, recycled, embellished and interact with reality is at the heart of the book. It comprises a palimpsest of fables, myths, legends, romances, chronicles and sagas.
His hero is Anthony, Lord Scales, brother to the beautiful Elizabeth who becomes Edward IV’s queen, and one of the Woodville clan whose rapid and resented rise is one motor of the mayhem unleashed by these titled gangsters. We meet him first at the battle of Towton, the bloodiest in English history, where he is apparently killed. After three days of strange encounters in a limbo landscape he returns to life and continues on picaresque adventures of chivalry and horror. Often bewildered, often slipping into occult spaces, he meets people like Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur, and the alchemist Ripley (believe it or not) who turns Anthony’s life into a legend. As one character observes: “The real world is a poor thing compared to the stories that are told about it.”
'One might conclude from these descriptions that Robert Irwin believes history and fiction to be indistinguishable. But this rather pedestrian interpretation fades away beside the enthralling delights of narrative, life itself to Sheharazade. This is a novel crammed with wonders.’
'Wonders Will Never Cease gives us something like a song out of a prior world, a world that can be sung, a world washed in hieroglyphics like notes in music. The tale is set in fifteenth century Britain, during the War of the Roses. Everything Robert Irwin tells us that might be historical is indeed historical.His hero, Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, 1422-1483, is a real figure, a reluctant polymath, a brawler, a man of self-destructive pride, brighter than is expected of him, less bright than he needs to be. Through dozens of sequences all told in the narrative present, his life is interwoven into the lives of friends, enemies, servants, lovers, all of whom seem to be "real," in the sense that they are historically verifiable, which does go some way. They may be way more highly-coloured than life as we understand life...The miracle of Wonders Will Never Cease is the wedding of all this vivid but essentially verifiable material with what one might tentatively identify as the stories that told the tales to those who lived them: the fables, legends, fleshed-out sententiæ, songs, all couched as though time were a shuttlecock. Every tale is as literally true as every other tale. The world is as it is seen. When a character sees something remarkable, he does not doubt what he has seen. What he notes is "what a wild, mad story he is in." There is no vision, seen or dreamed or recounted, that does not add to the truth....It utters on our behalf the loving falsehood that when humans tell each other something they colour it true. We do all hope to hear that song again.'
'Acclaimed by A. S. Byatt as one of the UK’s greatest living novelists, Robert Irwin has produced his first novel in seventeen years. Wonders Will Never Cease departs from his usual territory of writing about Arab culture to recount the story of Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales. Having been killed at the Battle of Towton in 1461, he finds himself to be still alive and, following a series of strange visions and otherworldly experiences, is sent reluctantly on a quest to find and return a gerfalcon to King Edward’s court. Thus ensues a series of adventures, where he encounters ghostly apparitions, demons and seductions. Woodville’s state of whether he is alive or dead is constantly questioned, even by himself.
This is, however, only one of the many storylines and plots in this very dense novel. Meticulously and exquisitely researched, in astonishing detail, the book is soaked through with myths, legends and folklore from that time period. It is more a book on medieval storytelling and how reality is created. There are tales within tales, yarns within yarns, mainly woven by the alchemist, Ripley, who intends to create a heroic persona for Woodville, much to his disdain. It is this blurred line between what is true and what is not that leads to inevitable conclusions for the “hero”.
It is not surprising that Irwin is the recipient of praise from Byatt, as readers will find familiar storytelling modes, including women born of faery folk, werewolves and ghosts. Told in the present tense, with past tense for the distant past, the prose is beautifully lyrical and completely captures the reader as they wind through the many threads within. Highly recommended.'
'It’s a book about stories and the way we react to them. It’s about changes in the world, about religion, about knowing what is real and what isn’t. It’s about something in the distance that we can’t explain, something glimpsed out of the corner of our eyes.
Religion features a lot – I liked Anthony’s associate, Ripley, saying ‘I think that the Bible is very badly plotted. I could do better’. It made me think of a historian’s claim that magic, witchcraft and superstition were common in Pre-Reformation England, mixed in with a poor grasp of Christianity. '
In Robert Irwin's superb novel Wonders Will Never Cease you will come across a character's theory that the years between AD600-900 were mostly a fabrication, ordered by the German king Otto III, who wanted to make sure he was the Holy Roman Emperor when the year 1000 came along. I liked this idea so much that I entertained it for perhaps longer than was wise.
In Robert Irwin’s fifteenth century Britain, myths are born, while legends are lived, deaths are foretold, ghosts walk abroad and magic is only just out of reach. For the world, when younger, was more brightly coloured and its ecstasies and tortures more fiercely endured. Against a background of well-researched historical fact, Irwin delves into the fabulous tales of the time. Using the presence of Sir Thomas Malory, writing Le Morte D’Arthur, he weaves in tales of knightly quests and the curse lying over the country after the Showing of the Grail.
Our hero - for protagonist is too neutral a word - is Sir Anthony Woodville, who is killed in the first few pages when he is on the wrong (Lancastrian) side of the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, Towton. When he returns to life three days later and is made a knight at the court of the victorious Yorkist Edward, he becomes the stuff of legends, many of them deliberately embroidered by the royal alchemist George Ripley. (Rather than turning base metal into gold, Ripley develops the 'talking head', which can foretell the future.) Irwin challenges the reader to question how much of the history we know of these times is in fact legend – nowadays we might call it spin.
Certainly King Edward met Sir Anthony’s widowed sister Elizabeth and, enchanted by her literally or metaphorically, married her. Even at the time many believed that her mother, Jaquetta, who claimed direct descent from the water fairy Melusine, had cast a spell, bewitching the king. Unfortunately we learn little of the marriage, or in fact any relationship with a female character, including Woodville's wife, who goes mad and is sent to a nunnery, for Irwin tells a boy’s story about quests and chivalry.
This is intellectual historical fiction packed with illusions to 15th century culture to be enjoyed at leisure. However in taking that path, Irwin denies us character. He presents us with a series of intricately stitched tableaux which we can admire, but they do not touch us.
Robert Irwin's most recent novel Wonders Will Never Cease is in many ways a return to the form of his first The Arabian Nightmare. The setting is different: this one takes place in fifteenth-century England, and all of the principal characters are drawn from the history of the period. The elaborate narrative structure supports further stories within it, including Arthurian romance, Celtic myth, the Niebelung saga, prophecies, propaganda, dreams, and visions. As in The Arabian Nightmare, the boundaries between the imaginary and the 'real' become very porous, and the reader is ultimately left with no defence against the fact that the contents of the book are all a story, but such a manifold and self-devouring story as to make one question the 'reality' of the reader as well.
Wonders Will Never Cease completely lives up to its promise, expertly and meaningfully blending myths and reality in a way that the author hasn't done quite as spectacularly since The Arabian Nightmare. Irwin draws from the Arthurian legends of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (Thomas Malory himself a significant character in the novel) and from the Canterbury Tales, but also from a Burgundian version of the Wagnerian legends of Tristan and from the Saga of the Niebelungs. Wonders Will Never Cease is a dazzling compendium of a golden age of storytelling, that not only celebrates a time of heroes and legends, but as Irwin's writing here testifies, as long as we have words to tell stories and have the imagination to relate to them, wonders will never cease.'
'Irwin draws on the strangest elements of early Renaissance legend and history for this charming, peculiar picaresque. Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, fights on the losing side of the War of the Roses and dies in battle. After a brief trip in the land of the dead, he finds himself back among the living; even more unexpectedly, he’s in the new king’s good graces. During the reign of Edward IV, he encounters events both miraculous and strange, but Anthony provides little besides the stitching that holds a number of disparate tales together; the actual events of his life—such as the deaths of his father—take up less space than a tale about one of King Arthur’s knights. Narratives are spun by Anthony’s mother, Jacquetta (supposedly descended from a dragon); a court alchemist named Ripley; and Thomas Malory, a knight who mostly spends his time working on his magnum opus, Le Morte d’Arthur. These stories drift out of their tellers’ control, as Anthony’s life drifts out of his, and he ends up on the wrong side of history again. Medievalists and history buffs will enjoy this premodern romp of bloody battles, court intrigues, and the occasional prophesying disembodied head.'
'Irwin’s entertaining literary fantasy has a solid historical framework yet is stuffed to the brim with well- known myths, rumors come to life, and imaginative tales created of whole cloth. Its protagonist (or maybe antagonist) is Anthony Woodville, a minor figure from England’s Wars of the Roses. After he appears to be killed at the Battle of Towton and later revives, his life becomes overlaid with occult happenings. A disembodied head prognosticates, and the dead walk again. Various characters, including “knight prisoner” Thomas Malory and the royal alchemist, relate episodes from Arthurian lore, the Welsh Mabinogion, The Canterbury Tales, and more. Characters from stories appear in the tangible world and historical figures surface in paranormal realms. Anthony’s mother claims descent from the fairy Melusine, and his sister, a widowed commoner, secretly marries King Edward. With so much strangeness around, Anthony has trouble discerning what is real. History and fiction are interlaced throughout with dexterity and wit. Perhaps best appreciated by medieval enthusiasts, Irwin’s novel invites discussion on the value of stories and how they communicate our place in the world.'
'A literary fantasy, Robert Irwin’s Wonders Will Never Cease delves into the War of the Roses and enters a world where “genealogy and heraldry are the only two sciences worth knowing.” Chivalry and political expediency coexist with dreams and visions, and the struggle for life is a battle waged waking or sleeping. As one young knight soon discovers, in this historic game of thrones, fortunes are made and lost on a person’s ability to survive his own legend.
Yorkist Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, emerges from the Palm Sunday Battle of Towton as a latter-day Lazarus. Presumed dead for three days, he wakes in a dank church, having narrowly escaped burial alive due to the frozen ground. Thus, he discovers a Lancastrian on the throne and the Yorkist claim lost. Survival means affiliation with the Lancastrians, and naive, brawny Anthony is soon in over his head as battlefields are traded for banquets and blades exchanged for backroom deals.
Poised between art and science, the narrative is alchemical in its construction, with meaning arriving through a series of legends, a story-within-a-story structure, that shapes the larger world and refuses to behave as stories should. Full of dark humor, magic, and mystery, the action is internecine and rarely straightforward. As Anthony finds out, “despite being in the story too, he has not understood it at all, but he fears that he will not like its message when he does seize upon it.”
Irwin knows, “Most of our history is invented and it is better that way. History is nothing but the lies we tell about our ancestors.” Using historical facts and figures, Wonders Will Never Cease captures English medieval life like never before in a narrative of harsh consequences, religious ritual, oral tradition, and dream logic both alien and familiar.'
‘Robert Irwin’s beautifully written novel Wonders Will Never Cease is a novel with a difference . . . It’s easy for the reader to become confused – and that’s the point. How many “historical” accounts are massively mythologised, and is myth sometimes more meaningful than reality? Fortean questions indeed.’
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, by Robert Irwin’s Wonders Will Never Cease repeatedly demonstrates that fiction will always win a competition for imaginative bizarreness. This metafictional novel follows the life of Anthony Woodville, an actual historical figure, as he is bounced around by the vagaries of War of the Roses-era politics and by the fictional wrangling of the king’s alchemist and Sir Thomas Malory. This is not a biographical novel so much as it is a bibliographic one. By the end, I think I had contemplated dozens of the purposes and consequences of storytelling along with the characters.
Anthony Woodville, and everyone else, doesn’t understand why he isn’t dead; he should be. He was killed in the 1461 Palm Sunday Battle of Towton, during England’s War of the Roses. Oddly, three days later, Anthony is awake and conversing about his visions (including witnessing the Arthurian Grail ceremony) during his unnatural slumber. Resplendent with a keen and authentic sense of the times, Irwin’s (The Arabian Nightmare) historical epic also entertains an array of fantastical side adventures that involve voyeuristic zombies, fairies, prophesying severed talking heads, and omens predicting clashing destinies. Along the way, within the context of the story, the characters also argue philosophy and theology. VERDICT Lovers of historical fiction, eccentric period pieces, and escapist reads with a touch of magical realism will enjoy Irwin’s fun and engaging tale, which cleverly mixes the historical and the fanciful in bizarrely amusing ways.
Does the adjective 'centoesque' exist? If not, it should, for Robert Irwin’s ingenious historical fantasy Wonders Will Never Cease is a contemporary novelist's version of the poetic form known as a cento. Because the Middle Ages valued tradition over originality, erudite versifiers sometimes devised poems in which every line was borrowed from some previous work of literature. While reading a cento, one savored its imaginative repurposing of bits from Horace, Virgil and any number of lesser ancients. We see the remains of this tradition in allusion-filled modern works such as T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
Throughout Wonders Will Never Cease, Irwin embeds lines and episodes from dozens of poems, legends and medieval romances. Some of these are - acknowledged by name, others aren't. The sources easiest to spot include the tale of the giant Bran and the Welsh king Matholwch, the legend of the Wild Hunt, the sea-voyages of St. Brendan, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' 'Jack and the Beanstalk,' Thomas Malory's ' Le Morte d'Arthur,' 'The Song of Roland,' 'The Nibelungenlied,' the poetry of Dante and Francois Villon, Julian of Norwich's 'Revelation of Divine Love' and, of course, ' The Arabian Nights'.
I say 'of course' because Irwin is most widely known as the author of 'The Arabian Nights: A Companion' and several other excellent books about Arabic culture. Yet Irwin is hardly a dry-as-dust antiquary, and Wonders Will Never Cease frequently reveals the wide range of his reading: His description of the world's end was obviously adapted from H.G. Wells's ' The Time Machine,' and there’s even an allusion to - shades of Sherlock - 'a Red-Headed League.'Irwin’s novel itself is set during the 15th-century's War of the Roses - the same conflict that inspired 'A Game of Thrones' - and virtually all its main characters are historical figures. If you remember your Shakespeare, you will detect in these pages the backstory for 'Richard 111' This is a time when 'genealogy and heraldry are the only two sciences worth knowing.'he book's action focuses on Anthony Woodville and his family: His sister Elizabeth eventually weds King Edward IV. In the first chapter, this young soldier undergoes an after-death experience during which he glimpses a strangely quiet procession and an old man with a bleeding wound. Only much later does Anthony realize that he has been vouchsafed a vision of the Grail King.
He also starts to see ghosts, so he visits the Abbot of Crowland for advice. As it happens, the Abbot and his monks have been temporarily stymied in calculating how old our world is:
'It now seems that there are too many centuries to fit their estimation of the age of the earth. However, after much thought and the consultation of old chronicles, the Abbot has succeeded in conclusively demonstrating that most of the centuries between 600 Anno Domini and 900 Anno Domini have been invented by a 10th-century Chronicler working for the German Emperor Otto III. These centuries were conjured up by him so that, when the year 1000 began, Otto could be hailed as the apocalyptic Emperor of the Millennium ... It was most suspicious how very little happens in those phantom centuries and, once they have been done away with, the Abbot's chronology works perfectly.'Anthony eventually encounters Sir John Tiptoft, discovering that 'The Butcher of England' is a cultivated bibliophile whose conversation is laced with surreptitious quotation. When Tiptoft declares, 'People prate about how wonderful life is, but I swear to you that reading is better,' one hears an echo of Logan Pearsall Smith's famous remark, 'People say that books are the thing, but I prefer reading.' Recalling his time in Rome, Tiptoft - who practices sorcery - mentions one night when 'I had passed barefoot friars celebrating vespers in a ruined temple and I could still hear their singing as I began my conjuration.' Edward Gibbon is the source here: 'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.' When Tiptoft confesses that he is 'vowed to the service of the God that has failed,' readers may remember a once- celebrated collection of essays about communism, 'The God That Failed.'In every way possible, Irwin blurs story and history, fantasy and reality. 'Our earth,' says the Abbot of Crowland, 'has trapdoors that are hidden and strange things go in and out of them.' There's a talking head that can predict the future, an unfunny jester name Scoggin, fearful revenants, lovers who only couple in churches, a magnificent falcon used as a messenger from the land of the dead, a Secret Library, a dragon that guards an enchanted sword, Chaucer's lost 'Book of the Lion' and a Museum of Skulls. The wonders never cease.
But neither do they go on for too long. Irwin keeps the action fast-moving and even somewhat schematic, though his few details can be telling. Describing the funeral of Anthony’s witchy, fairy-obsessed mother, we are told that 'just outside the churchyard there seem to be small children hiding in the bushes and whispering.'
Stories within stories within stories. King Edward's alchemist and spymaster - his name is Ripley, believe it or not - tirelessly spreads 'fake news' about Anthony, portraying him as a hero out of chivalric romance. But, as Sir Thomas Malory tells the young man, 'it is not a comfortable thing to be a creature in someone else’s fictions.' True enough, but as Tiptoft also reminds us, 'Search how you may you will never find happy endings in life. It is only there in books.' And sometimes not even there.
In its handling of Anthony, Wonders Will Never Cease is reminiscent of Hillary Mantel's humanising, deliberately modern historical novels. Like Mantel's Cromwell, Irwin's Anthony is defined by his ambivalence, his willingness to learn about the world and consider different points of view, and his detachment from more florid, dogmatic figures like Edward, or his chief constable and avid torturer Tiptoft. But its frequent forays into symbol-laden Arthurian pastiches (which reminded me very much of the novels of John Crowley) mean that this realism is constantly, and clearly deliberately, being undercut. The result is a heady, dense mixture, by no means a quick or straightforward read. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of the novel's frequent detours into stories-within-stories, or its near-invisible transitions between realism and allegory. But whenever one is in danger of being permanently disoriented, the force of history reappears and carries Anthony, and us, along with it. In its final moments, as Anthony approaches a date with destiny that will transform him into a character in other people's narratives, the project of Wonders Will Never Cease becomes clear - to convince us of a thing that is almost impossible for most of us to believe, that history is real, and that we are a part of it.