(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Hal is a young man of extraordinary talents, astonishing warrior skills, sharp intelligence, and a fierce sense of honor and virtue. He believes he is destined for greatness. His father wishes he would disappear. Haunted by the ghosts of his family’s violent past, Hal embarks on a journey that leads him to absolute power—and brings him face to face with his demons.”
I have an odd fascination with British history, and especially with the Tudor era. So much was changing in the world at that time that much of the historical record reads like the most fantastical novel you could ever hope to pick up. Unfortunately, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge where documentation is slim or nonexistent. One of those periods is the childhood of King Henry VIII. Never meant for the throne, he was forced into the role of ruler due to the death of his older brother Arthur.
I’ve read many novels about this time period, most notably ones by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. Most of what I’ve read has also focused on the women, so outside of the non-fiction that I’ve also read, I didn’t ever get a feel for what we do know about Henry’s early years. Castor attempts to imagine some of those details, extrapolating from what we do know, and also tries to account for how a shining paragon of English royalty turned into the tyrant that we all know and love to hate.
The author’s success at this endeavor is mixed, to say the least. Castor set herself a hard task: show Henry as a bright, intelligent child and get us to care about him despite what we know he will do, and then show his descent without losing the characterization that she already set up. In this, she succeeds. Henry as a boy is shaped by those around him and by the circumstances in which he finds himself. Castor takes an interesting tack in painting Henry VII as a cruel and domineering father, and although there’s no evidence of this historically, it does play pretty well into Henry’s character makeup.
The author also excels at giving readers a sense of the world as it existed in the late 1400s to mid-1500s. The author has obviously done a ton of research, and even state in an author’s note that just about everything she described in the novel was found in the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his time of death. Knowing that lends a strong air of historical reality to the narrative.
What I didn’t think worked all that well was the pacing. Henry’s life before his father’s death takes up just a few pages shy of half the book. Another 120 pages cover from his coronation to his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. His tempestuous marriage to Anne Boleyn lasts for around 50 pages. The final 52 pages cover his last four wives and his death. By the end, the author is omitting major chunks of time, and wives three through six are hardly mentioned.
The greater missed opportunity here lies in what the author said was her goal: to not only explore Henry’s younger years, but to show his progression from favored youth to cruel dictator. And if you know anything about history, you know that it’s not just his treatment of his wives in which he shows his colors. Castor missed some golden opportunities to delve into his general callousness. The executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More only get a brief mention, and yet they shook the world when they happened. The Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion in which Henry promised to pardon the participants and then executed the leaders, isn’t even mentioned specifically—just a few words about the north being filled with rebellion that needs to be constantly put down. Henry’s cruelty cut across all aspects of life, and confining it to his treatment of his wives is, in my opinion, too narrow.
I could have done without the supernatural element, because it wasn’t handled very well. From a young age, Henry sees visions of a boy with straw-colored hair who is often crying with pain and obviously suffering. Henry continues to see this specter throughout his life, usually right before some of his most traumatic losses. Its first appearance is in the Tower of London, where young Henry has just found out about the “Princes in the Tower”, the young princes who were imprisoned there and vanished, presumably murdered. The story sort of leads you to believe that the apparition is one of the princes, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Since the author said that she wanted to show how Henry was haunted by the demons of his family’s past, the way things play out didn’t make sense to me.
There was a lot to like in this novel, especially the attention to historical detail. I did, however, feel that the author could have tightened her pacing and really explored Henry’s character. He’s a deliciously cruel, terribly controlling man, and his actions form a tale that could give a sensitive reader nightmares. I went through this book in a single day, but I kept having the nagging feeling that it could have reached even higher. VIII might be a good introduction to Henry’s character, but the meat of his reign is ignored.