26 April 2012

Review 30: VIII by H. M. Castor

"VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family's violent past and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII."


This is clearly a very well researched novel with a solid grounding in historical fact. The first half which focuses on Henry's childhood and adolescence is evocative and exciting but unfortunately Castor speeds through the rest of his life (and wives) too fast for readers who don't already know what happened to keep up. It also is in the unusual position of being a young adult novel where the protagonist is an adult for a large portion of the book, and is in his 50s at the end, which doesn't quite work for me. There are some dramatic devices that are overused and it casts Henry in a rather too favourable light but it is very readable and hopefully will encourage some younger readers to delve further into historical fiction and Tudor history.

First Line: 'I'm still half asleep when I feel strong hands grabbing me.'

Why I read it: My husband bought it for me from my Amazon wishlist. I studied Tudor history at university so am always interested to read perspectives on Henry VIII.

I assumed that one of the problems for this novel would be its intended audience. It's a young adult book, but the main character is an adult for the second half and there's a lot of historical material skimmed over very briefly. I did enjoy reading it but I'm an adult who reads a lot of young adult as well as an historian so I feel like I fit into the rather niche market it would really appeal to (and I didn't even love it that much). The review on the Guardian website said,
      "The writer's choices are always going to displease someone: the young and the not-so-young adult,the historian, the fan of the recent TV series, the school librarian." www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/30/viii-hm-castor-review
I feel as though I fit into more of those categories than your average reader would and I was slightly sceptical as to it's appeal to teenagers and those not familiar with Henry's reign. But it would seem that I'm wrong as it has very positive reviews on both Amazon and GoodReads, it would seem that my rather specific angle, only meant I was frustrated by historical inaccuracies that others didn't notice or care about. 

In those reviews it's also compared frequently to Wolf Hall which puzzles me. Young adult novels are rarely compared so often to adult novels and really the only commonality is a leading Tudor figure as the main characters and perhaps the slightly revisionist spin the authors give that portray them in a more positive light than they are traditionally seen. Wolf Hall is an adult, literary, historical epic with clever structure and language and a detailed and complex look at Tudor politics and personality. VIII is a fast paced, exciting and simple story of  growing up and relationships. Wolf Hall is a fresh and detailed look at Thomas Cromwell and whilst VIII has a fresh look at Henry's childhood, the second half of the book is a quick skim through Henry's adulthood which covers hugely important events, both for Henry personally and in terms of historical impact, very quickly. Castor simplifies many key events into very broad strokes and does not really explore the impact that they had. I understand the focus on Henry's childhood but I would have preferred the novel to either go into more detail about his adult life or to stop earlier, say when Henry married Catherine, or Anne or thereabouts.

The first half is definitely stronger and is an interesting perspective on the events and people that made Henry the king he turned out to be; his very close relationship with his mother and his troubled relationship with his father. Castor also fills in some historical gaps about his relationship with his doomed older brother, Arthur, but she makes it very antagonistic. I suppose we will never know a great detail about Arthur but I can't say I was convinced by the competitive and malicious character Castor creates. I felt that Castor tried to cast people as good or bad too rigidly. Mother = good, father = bad, brother = bad, Charles Brandon = good and could have done more with these characters who are fascinatingly riddled with flaws and strengths. (As a side point, in this broadbrushing, Castor chooses to completely ignore the fact that Brandon flirted with the chopping block after he married Henry's sister without his permission).

The other element I didn't enjoy was the use of the vision of a boy that Henry periodically sees. I found that it was overused and that Castor used it to explain away all of Henry's weaknesses. Considering the fact that the novel is generally so rooted in historical fact, it seems a odd choice to explain so much of Henry's character through something which is entirely invented. Regardless of your opinions of whether seeing visions is real or not, we have no historical sources that indicate Henry was plagued by this type of vision. It felt as though any time Henry acted erratically in history, Castor inserts a vision of this boy just before it happened. On that note, I felt that Henry was portrayed too positively; whilst Castor doesn't shy away too much from the decisions Henry makes, he is written as a victim and whilst Henry VIII was many things, a victim is not one of them.

Despite all of these problems though, the novel is very readable and largely well written, linguistically rather than structurally. I imagine that part of the reason I felt it had many flaws and many other, mainly younger, readers enjoyed it so much was just the level of existing knowledge about Henry. I had thought that my background in Tudor history would deepen my enjoyment of this but in fact I think it did the opposite. Perhaps young adults readers will enjoy the speedy foray into Henry's adult years and it will inspire them to find out more about what happened.

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