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.”

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.

This review was originally posted on September 3, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Brazen by Katherine Longshore

“Mary Howard has always lived in the shadow of her powerful family. But when she’s married off to Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, she rockets into the Tudor court’s inner circle. Mary and “Fitz” join a tight clique of rebels who test the boundaries of court’s strict rules with their games, dares, and flirtations. The more Mary gets to know Fitz, the harder she falls for him, but is forbidden from seeing him alone. The rules of court were made to be pushed—but pushing them too far means certain death. Is true love worth dying for?”

One of my random interests is British history, especially the Tudor era. There was so much going on during that time period that it’s as good as any novel—the conflicts, the romances, the backstabbing, all contribute to a portion of history that’s nearly unbelievable. A lot of fiction has been written about the Tudor court, and with good reason. I feel that it’s an especially good subject to get teens interested in history, and Longshore’s novels are among the best contributions to that genre.

The seed of this particular book comes from the Devonshire Manuscript, which is a book of poetry written in many different hands, including that of Mary Howard, the young wife of Henry Fitzroy. The rules at Henry VIII’s court were strict, especially for women, and Longshore does an excellent job of using the Devonshire Manuscript as the backdrop for some of the young women pushing the boundaries of what’s expected of them.

I found Mary an easy character to like. While she is definitely a product of her era, the struggles that she goes through in trying to find her identity and make a place for herself in the world are ones that anybody can relate to. There’s not a lot of information about her life and activities, but we do know that she fought to retain the title that she got from Fitzroy, so she was obviously a strong-willed woman. The author invents a wonderful early history for Mary, setting her character up to become the individual that is known in history.

We may not know much about Mary, but there is a lot of available research on the Tudor court, and the author weaves details about daily life and cultural norms seamlessly into the story. You get a lot of fascinating information without even realizing it, and I’m willing to bet that it will spark some readers to investigate more on their own. Far from being dry and dusty, Longshore’s version of history is vibrant with color and activity and energy. Henry VIII in his early years was something of a “rock star”, handsome and magnetic, and readers will get the full sense of what that era was like.

It’s too bad that Longshore won’t be writing any more Tudor novels for the foreseeable future, because I’ve greatly enjoyed her forays into the lives of the women who helped shape England during one of its most tumultuous time periods. Brazen brings history to life in a way that few young adult novels manage, capturing the allure and dangers of life for the women in Henry VIII’s court.

This review was originally posted on June 30, 2014.

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

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A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

“After Grandmére Ursule gives her life to save her tribe, her magic seems to die with her. Even so, her family keeps the Old Faith, practicing the spells and rites that have been handed from mother to daughter for generations. Until one day, Ursule’s young granddaughter steps into the circle, and magic flows anew.

From early 19th century Brittany to London during the Second World War, five generations of witches fight the battles of their time, deciding how far they are willing to go to protect their family, their heritage, and ultimately, all of our futures.”

Check out that description.  Badass women wielding magical powers, fighting injustice, and saving the future.  Sounds interesting, yes?  Well, actually, no.

As stated above, the novel follows five women in a generational tale set in England.  Although these women are supposed to be five individuals, the author tells the same story (more or less) all five times: character has normal life; character suddenly discovers magical powers in both her mother and herself; character finds man to impregnate her; has a daughter; rinse and repeat.  Given this framework, none of the characters really stand out–they all exist for the same purpose, and that is to pass along magic to a daughter.  The ladies are reduced to breeding stock, in a sense, since they greatest achievement is always their child.

Except for the last character, anyway.  And that’s the oddest thing of all.  Four generations of nothing happening, and then, suddenly, one of the family helps to save England?  By doing magic with Queen Elizabeth?  Helping to turn the tide of World War II?  Huh?  There’s absolutely nothing to prepare readers for this rapid about-face in the plot.  Actually, I should amend that: there’s nothing to prepare readers for the appearance of an actual plot, since nothing really happens in the first 80% of this book.

Honestly, I found this book to be boring.  I forced myself to finish it, but I really didn’t enjoy it.  I can’t even think of much to say about it, now that it comes down to me actually writing this review.  Given how much I love to blab about books, that should be a huge red flag in and of itself.

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

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The Queen’s Pleasure by Brandy Purdy

the-queens-pleasure“Accused of conspiring with rebels to steal the throne, Princess Elizabeth is relegated to the Tower of London by her half-sister, Queen Mary. There she finds solace in the arms of a fellow prisoner–her childhood friend, Robert Dudley. Certain their days are numbered, their bond deepens. But they are spared the axe and Elizabeth soon wins the crown, while Robert returns to his wife and the unhappy union he believes cheated him of his destiny to be king. . .

As a daughter of Henry VIII and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth knows firsthand the cruelty marriage belies and roundly rejects the many suitors eager to wed the “Virgin Queen”–with the exception of the power-hungry Robert. But her association with him will carry a risk that could shake the very foundations of the House of Tudor. . .”

The story of Amy Robsart Dudley’s short life and untimely death remains one of the biggest mysteries of Tudor England.  No one knows if she committed suicide, had a terrible accident, or fell victim to foul play.  But her death rocked the political climate of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, because Amy’s husband was Sir Robert Dudley, rumored paramour of the Virgin Queen.  In this novel, Purdy sets out to explore the relationships between these three historical figures, but unfortunately, the result is lackluster.

For one thing, the text contains way too much description.  For example, at the wedding banquet for Guildford Dudley and Jane Grey, there is a massive salad.  The author feels it worth her while to list every ingredient in this salad, and it takes more than a page to do so.  Every dress worn by the two female main characters is described in painstaking detail, down to the embroidery patterns.  I found myself skimming sections like these, because they seemed like filler.

For another thing, the author is really repetitive.  There are phrases that get repeated multiple times through the novel, so it kept feeling like I was reading the same scene over and over.  Did you know that the Dudley emblem is a bear and a ragged staff?  You will by the time you finish this book.

Then there’s the author’s tendency towards florid writing.  It’s not really purple prose, but instead there are tons of italicized words and a forest of exclamation marks.  This is used mostly for Amy’s sections of the book, and it’s so prevalent that it contributes to Amy coming across as immature, brainless and hysterical.  The other characters don’t escape this, but not a page goes by without Amy’s dialogue or inner thoughts reading like the equivalent of a drama queen’s acting out.

I really feel bad about this book, because the historical story is extremely interesting, and this novel could have explored the politics of the time and place of women in society.  Instead, it reads like a cheap romance, and there was nothing simple or easy about this situation at the time it was happening.  I love historical fiction based in Tudor England, but this is one you can safely bypass.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

voyager“Their passionate encounter happened long ago by whatever measurement Claire Randall took. Two decades before, she had traveled back in time and into the arms of a gallant eighteenth-century Scot named Jamie Fraser. Then she returned to her own century to bear his child, believing him dead in the tragic battle of Culloden. Yet his memory has never lessened its hold on her… and her body still cries out for him in her dreams.

Then Claire discovers that Jamie survived. Torn between returning to him and staying with their daughter in her own era, Claire must choose her destiny. And as time and space come full circle, she must find the courage to face the passion and pain awaiting her…the deadly intrigues raging in a divided Scotland… and the daring voyage into the dark unknown that can reunite—or forever doom—her timeless love.

Gabaldon mesmerized readers with a love story that spanned two centuries in Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber. This new novel in Gabaldon’s highly acclaimed time-travel saga again features intrepid time traveler Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser, the gallant 18th-century Scottish clansman who stole Claire’s heart and whose memory will not loosen its hold on her, even across the chasm of centuries.”

Okay, I admit it: this series is a guilty pleasure, and one that I’ve recently rediscovered.  You see, I read the first two books in the series a long time ago, and then didn’t continue (mostly because the books are so darn long).  With the new TV series out on Starz, though, I picked up the series again, starting with re-reading the first two books and progressing onto those that are new to me.

Of the first three, I think this one is the weakest.  It’s not that it’s bad–like I said, it’s a guilty pleasure–but it doesn’t have the driving force of the first two.  Outlander focused on Claire’s attempts to return home to her own time through the standing stones, and Dragonfly in Amber dealt with Jaime and Claire’s doomed bid to stop the 1745 Jacobite uprising.  Voyager had that same drive, that same firm goal, throughout the initial third of the novel: Claire discovers that Jaime didn’t die at Culloden Field as she’d thought, and she tracks him through history to find out if he survived long enough for her jump back in time to seek him out.  It’s paralleled by Jaime’s own story, filling in the gaps of the sparse facts dug up by Claire.

Once Claire gets back to 1700s Scotland, though, the narrative wavers.  For most of the book’s middle section, there is no main plot.  Claire and Jaime’s reunion is something any reader will want to see, of course, but you can’t look at events and see where the book as a whole is going.  It continues somewhat even past the point where a goal presents itself, because achieving that goal becomes so convoluted.

Said goal also involves some pretty outlandish (pardon the pun) events.  Pirates, sweeping disease on the high seas, shipwrecks, hurricanes, voodoo rituals–that’s just a taste of what you’re in store for.  Although I have to say that in the middle of all this preposterous upheaval, there were some great moments.  Specifically, a character believed to be dead returns in fine fashion and brings certain events hinted at during the book’s opening chapters full circle.  My fangirlishness was pleased at some of the images and events near the end, and I’m not afraid to admit that.  I do love a good plot twist!

Wandering plot aside, I did enjoy this book thoroughly.  Gabaldon’s research is exhaustive and meticulous, and she knows how to give readers a real sense of the time period.  And now, on to Drums of Autumn!

This book was a personal purchase.

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