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.

(Description nicked from B&

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.

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The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman

the-private-lives-of-the-tudorsEngland’s Tudor monarchs—Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—are perhaps the most celebrated and fascinating of all royal families in history. Their love affairs, their political triumphs, and their overturning of the religious order are the subject of countless works of popular scholarship. But for all we know about Henry’s quest for male heirs, or Elizabeth’s purported virginity, the private lives of the Tudors remain largely beyond our grasp.

“In The Private Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman delves deep behind the public face of the monarchs, showing us what their lives were like beyond the stage of court. Drawing on the accounts of those closest to them, Borman examines Tudor life in fine detail. What did the monarchs eat? What clothes did they wear, and how were they designed, bought, and cared for? How did they practice their faith? And in earthlier moments, who did they love, and how did they give birth to the all-important heirs?

Delving into their education, upbringing, sexual lives, and into the kitchens, bathrooms, schoolrooms, and bedrooms of court, Borman charts out the course of the entire Tudor dynasty, surfacing new and fascinating insights into these celebrated figures.”

As far as I’m concerned, being fascinated with historical figures is no different from our modern fascination with celebrities.  People want to know every detail of the lives of movie stars, music icons, and political figures–and as you may know, Henry VIII was considered to be the rock star of the 1500s.  The difference is that knowing what happened behind closed doors of people like the famous king is more difficult for many reasons.

One of those reasons is that such a public figure would guard his private time carefully.  Another reason is that our only sources for the knowledge we want is written documents from the time period, many of which have been lost.  Yet another reason is the fact that some of those written sources may not be trustworthy.

Nevertheless, there is a wealth of knowledge out there if you know where to look for it.  Borman is able to go into exhausting detail about such things as clothing, meals, worship, and social status.  Clothing is especially prominent here, either because Borman finds it the most compelling aspect of Tudor private life, or because clothing really was that important.  I suspect it’s a little of both, since the impression I got from reading this was that clothing could give a lot of information about an individual.

For me, though, this book started slowly.  I think the author was having trouble deciding if this book was supposed to be a straightforward history or a true behind-the-scenes look at Tudor life.  This leads to the first third or so of the book being some broad strokes of historical fact interspersed with smaller nuggets of information on clothes, food, and other such subjects.  As it progresses, Borman seems to find a better balance between history and personal facts, but the history still feels a bit slapdash.  Granted, the story of the Tudor reign, and the story of Henry VIII in particular, are immensely complex, but perhaps the transitions between parts of this tale could have been smoother.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be enjoyable and to provide many tidbits of info that I wasn’t previously aware of.  I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the historical facts, but for someone with that knowledge who wishes to go deeper, this book will satisfy a lot of curiosity.

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.

(Description nicked from B&