Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

“Rich in detail and atmosphere and told in vivid prose, Tudors recounts the transformation of England from a settled Catholic country to a Protestant superpower. It is the story of Henry VIII’s cataclysmic break with Rome, and his relentless pursuit of both the perfect wife and the perfect heir; of how the brief reign of the teenage king, Edward VI, gave way to the violent reimposition of Catholicism and the stench of bonfires under ‘Bloody Mary’. It tells, too, of the long reign of Elizabeth I, which, though marked by civil strife, plots against the queen and even an invasion force, finally brought stability.

Above all, however, it is the story of the English Reformation and the making of the Anglican Church. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, England was still largely feudal and looked to Rome for direction; at its end, it was a country where good governance was the duty of the state, not the church, and where men and women began to look to themselves for answers rather than to those who ruled them.”

This review is going to be a bit different from the ones that I usually do.  You see, I didn’t finish this book, so I’m going to discuss the reasons why.  I firmly believe that you can learn a lot about a book by reading both the positive and the negative with regards to other people’s opinions about it.

I’ve been interested in the Tudor dynasty for a long time.  The history of that era reads like the most sensational novel ever penned, and it encompasses love, hate, passion, politics, religion, war, and a host of other things.  It’s a complicated time in history, when many forces came into play and shaped the way the world looked for decades, if not centuries.

My primary sources of info have been, as you may imagine, books written on the subject.  I’ve also watched media presentations like The Tudors on Showtime and The Other Boleyn Girl on the big screen, and while these favor entertainment over accuracy in many respects, they still inspire me to go looking for information on my own.  A few documentaries round out my experience with delving into the period.

When I saw that Peter Ackroyd was writing a book the covers the Tudor dynasty, I was immediately interested.  I hadn’t read anything by him, having mostly read books by Alison Weir, but I’m always open to a new author.  His first book about English history, Foundation, had many excellent reviews, so I had high hopes for Tudors.

I freely admit that I only made it through three of Henry VIII’s six wives before I gave up in boredom.

How did that happen?  How did a historical period that I find so fascinating get reduced to something that I was slogging through long before I gave up on it?

Part of my disappointment seems to have sprung from my own expectations.  For one, this book is slightly mistitled in that it does not cover the entire Tudor dynasty–it leaves out Henry VII.  This seems a bit odd to me as the Tudors were brought to power on the battlefield and readers don’t get to see that piece of history in conjunction with the rest of the family’s deeds.  For another, prime movers and shakers of the period get short shrift here: Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and others show up much less frequently than I expected.

The rest of my inability to finish the book lies in the author’s writing and presentation style.  I was surprised to find that Ackroyd’s writing felt fairly unfocused to me.  This may be because so many books about this period look heavily through the lens of Henry VIII’s actions, which makes sense given how many changes he introduced to England during his reign.  But while Ackroyd covers a lot of ground, many of the events he writes about seem unmoored from everything else and are presented in isolation.  The passing of laws that were the result of specific chains of events seem to pop up suddenly in a way that makes them feel abrupt. People come and go from the narrative with awkward irregularity, such as the way the Spanish ambassador (who, if I remember rightly, was never named in this book although he was present at the court for many years) occasionally appears in references to his letters back to Spain.

At the point that I gave up, I didn’t feel that I was going to get a good overview of the Tudor era by reading this book.  It isn’t that I feel that a comprehensive look at the era is impossible; rather, I don’t think Ackroyd’s approach works well either stylistically or as a collection of facts.  I’ll stick with Weir for my history fix.

This review was originally posted on November 26, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis Branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Once Upon a Dream by Liz Braswell

once-upon-a-dream“It should be simple–a dragon defeated, a slumbering maiden, a prince poised to wake her. But when said prince falls asleep as soon as his lips meet the princess’s, it is clear that this fairy tale is far from over.

With a desperate fairy’s last curse infiltrating her mind, Princess Aurora will have to navigate a dangerous and magical landscape deep in the depths of her dreams. Soon she stumbles upon Phillip, a charming prince eager to join her quest. But with Maleficent’s agents following her every move, Aurora struggles to discover who her true allies are, and moreover, who she truly is. Time is running out. Will the sleeping beauty be able to wake herself up?”

This is one of the rare books that I simply could not make myself finish.  I got about a third of the way through it before realizing that it just wasn’t holding my interest and put it down.  I feel bad about that–I try to make every effort to finish a book once I start it–but as I get older I am more likely to follow the maxim “Life is too short to read bad books”.

I’m just not sure what this book was trying to do.  It’s not exactly a twist on the Disney version of the fairy tale, since the story doesn’t follow the movie at all.  It starts with Aurora being kissed by the prince, but then the prince falls asleep and the story goes from there.  Aurora is dreaming through the whole novel, living in a world created by Maleficent, one that paints the evil fairy as good.  I’m not quite sure where the dream came from–I can believe Maleficent’s dying curse being one that sends the prince to sleep, but why create this elaborate dream world?  It’s the same problem I had with the movie The Matrix: if you can keep someone asleep forever, why let them dream and give them a possible out?

It’s entirely possible that this question is answered further into the book, but sadly, what I read didn’t encourage me to keep going and find out.  Aurora is shallow, Maleficent is a parody of her normal self, and there’s really nobody else to keep the novel going.  Yes, Prince Philip is supposed to show up later, but I don’t see what he would add the story.

I’m not going to give this book a chocolate kiss rating, because it wouldn’t be fair, given that I didn’t finish the book.  I also won’t say that there’s nothing redeeming about this novel, because I’m sure that there are people for whom the premise would draw them in.  For me, though, it didn’t work.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

seeker“Quin Kincaid has been put through years of brutal training for what she thinks is the noble purpose of becoming a revered ‘Seeker’.

Only when it’s too late does she discover she will be using her new-found knowledge and training to become an assassin. Quin’s new role will take her around the globe, from a remote estate in Scotland to a bustling, futuristic Hong Kong where the past she thought she had escaped will finally catch up with her.”

This is one of those rare DNF (did not finish) titles for me.  It sounded so neat, and yet failed so epically to deliver on its premise.  It’s odd, because there were things about it that I really liked, but they were overshadowed by the many things that I didn’t like at all.

For the most part, I didn’t like the characters.  Quin came across as flat, and she was the one I was most hoping to identify with.  The author sets her up as the focal point of a supposed love triangle that never actually manifests (or at least it hadn’t at the three quarters point when I finally threw in the towel).  Quin’s father Briac is little more than an abusive thug.  The two boys in Quin’s life, fellow Seekers-in-training John and Shinobu, didn’t click as people Quin would be interested in.  John was the most interesting in and of himself, simply because the author does manage to paint a fairly good picture of someone justifying just about anything in pursuit of revenge, but he often descends into being pathetic because he can’t bear to do the very things that he’s justifying–leaving others to do his dirty work.

The concept of a Seeker is never really explained.  The best explanation I could come up with was a secret society that fights for justice using magic athames to cut holes in reality and travel where needed.  Hints in the book lead to the conclusion that any such organization has been decimated by centuries of infighting, something that isn’t explored beyond John’s quest for vengeance.

The sense of place and time in the novel is very ill-defined.  At certain points it seems to be in medieval times, but there are mentions of things like aircars.  Hong Kong seems like present day, if not near-future, but there are mentions of things that sound oddly like steampunk-ish dirigibles.  At the same time, if I’m remembering correctly, corporations make magical weapons.  It’s really confusing, and it’s made worse by flashbacks from a side character who has been alive since the 1400s.

I tried really hard to finish this, but in the end, there just wasn’t enough for me to continue spending time on this book.  Look elsewhere for your fantasy fix.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.)