There are some periods of history which have been so thoroughly mined by writers of historical fiction that there would appear to be nothing new left to say. So when someone recommended that I read VIII, my initial response was ‘Must I read yet another novel about the Tudors?’. Thank goodness I did. It may be a crowded marketplace, but VIII is different.
For a start it is narrated by Henry himself. The novel opens during the Perkin Warbeck rebellion and we are plunged into the confusion and terror of the young Hal as he is dragged from his bed in the middle of the night to be taken to the safety of the Tower of London. The way in which Castor uses this scene to establish the historical context without falling into the trap of clumsy exposition is admirable. She cleverly links the young Hal’s recognition of his mother’s uncertainties about the fate of her brothers with his own doubts about his role as the overlooked second son so that when he begins to be haunted by visions of a tortured young boy it seems natural rather than supernatural. One of the puzzles of Henry VIII is how he developed from Tudor golden boy into monstrous tyrant. Because Castor uses the device of the wraith to connect the troubled recent past, Hal’s own suppressed doubts about the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, and his ambiguous position as the despised second son who becomes the heir barely tolerated by his father, his eventual descent into monstrous madness seems not only natural but inevitable.
The novel spends considerably longer on Henry’s early life, giving an intimate portrait of his relationship with his parents, his older brother Arthur and his secondhand bride, Catherine of Aragon. The closely observed realistic detail of Tudor life, particularly in the first half of the book, is one of its greatest strengths and means that as the story gathers momentum, galloping from one abandoned wife to the next driven by Hal’s spiralling madness, the reader is rooted in time and place sufficiently well to withstand the furious pace.
Using the first person point of view means VIII is not event driven and makes transition from glorious boy to tyrant psychologically convincing. It also means that the novel can be boy-oriented without defaulting to the swords and slashing mode that seems to characterise much historical fiction aimed at boys.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to pupils from Year 7 right through to A-Level, and although the c-word is not always a popular commendation among writers of YA fiction, this is very definitely a novel that adults will enjoy too. Castor’s next book will explore the contrasting characters of Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. I can’t wait to read it.
VIII by HM Castor is published by Templar Publishing