* Prices may differ from that shown
As you might reasonably guess from the title, VIII is a historical novel aimed at teens about the life and reign of Henry VIII. Moving from his earliest childhood through to his eventual death, it chronicles the life and reign of one of England's most (in)famous kings.
Historical fiction is always a tricky genre to get right, particularly when your primary market is a younger one. Provide too much detail and it feels rather too much like a school history lesson; provide too little and it feels superficial and glib. For the most part, Castor gets the balance about right. Readers who know the period well will notice massive gaps in the chronology and the liberties taken with historical facts at a few points. Yet despite the odd lapse, Castor is mostly faithful to the period and succeeds in establishing a believable atmosphere and sense of period. The early part of the book, for example, generates a sense of tension as the nascent Tudor Dynasty faces threats to its survival the coronation of Henry VIII provokes a genuine sense of celebration and hope which slowly tarnishes as the new king reveals his true nature.
Having said that, there were times when the book did feel a little superficial, glossing over some pretty significant events from Henry's reign. The break from Rome and establishment of the Church in England (an event with massive repercussions for the next 50 years) is dealt with only fleetingly and only in the context of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon; the dissolution of the monasteries - an event with significant religious, social and economic ramifications - is not even mentioned.
Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on Henry as a person and, in particular, in the context of his six wives. This is perhaps where the book most betrays its origins as a book for young adults: it focuses too much on the aspect of Henry that everyone knows - his multiple marriages. On the other hand, the strength of this approach is that it gives the book a strong narrative structure, without reducing it to a historical chronology and allows the book to take a more personal look at Henry, as a man, rather than as a king.
Unlike many history books, Castor presents a very balanced view of Henry. She gives him a sympathetic hearing and places everything in the context of his vision of himself as a warrior king and true ruler of France and his desire to secure his dynasty by fathering a son and heir. These two ambitions, along with a well-explained self-belief that he is destined for greatness frame the book. They work well, giving a surprisingly effective insight into the workings of his mind and helping to make even some of his more despicable acts at least understandable.
Castor constructs a convincing historical figure from the material available. She takes the brave decision to tell the story from the perspective of the King himself (rather than via a third party) which gives it a more immediate emotional impact. We are privy to Henry's innermost thoughts and fears and whilst (obviously) no-one can ever truly know what want on in Henry's mind, she convincingly reconstructs his personality from the evidence available. Her Henry can be loving and gentle, hot-headed, intelligent, yet easily manipulated and vindictive. It's a very believable portrayal of a King who could shower you with gifts one minute and order your execution the next.
VIII also does an excellent job of showing how Henry's childhood and upbringing led to him becoming the man he did. Henry's relationship with his father, Henry VII was notoriously rocky. Young Henry was viewed by his father as a necessary evil (a spare heir) but otherwise all but ignored, whilst all the attention was lavished on his brother Arthur. Henry sought only to please his father and was hurt by the lack of any affection.
His mother overcompensated for this by indulging the young Henry and this led the young Henry to develop a massive sense of his own self-worth that led to fits of rage if he did not get his own way. Castor does an excellent job of bringing young Henry to life and showing how his early experiences had a massive influence on the development of his personality, the direction of his life and ultimately, the history of England.
A slight criticism of this is that the book does perhaps focus a little too much on Henry's formative years and, as such, the ending feels a little rushed. After the execution of Ann Boleyn (Henry's second wife) the pace shifts significantly and the narrative races through Henry's marriages to Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard and Catharine Parr. In fairness, this is partly intention to replicate the idea that Henry felt he was running out of time to produce a male heir that would secure the Tudor line, but it does feel like around 15 years' worth of history is being dispatched with unseemly haste.
The only bit which (for me) did not work at all was the leitmotif of Henry's vision of a young boy, a portent of some major event in his life. This was rather over-wrought and the portrayal of Henry as someone who at times only had a tenuous group on reality didn't fly for me. It's certainly feasible that Henry was susceptible to visions (he did, after all, fervently believe God spoke to him directly), but this element of the plot clashes with the otherwise highly realistic characterisation established.
Costing around £3.50 in either print or Kindle edition, this is a book that is well worth buying. It might position itself as a book for young adults, but it's actually worth reading for anyone with an interest in the period. What it occasionally lacks in historical depth, it makes up for in compelling, convincing characters.
H M Castor
© Copyright SWSt 2012