3 out of 5 stars
How many Tudor books are there?
Now how many are written from the perspective of Henry VIII?
VIII is the only book I know of that takes this approach (though if there are others, please share!) and for that alone I'd say it's worth reading.
At least for Tudor fans, because I'm really not sure it stands on its own for the non-Tudor fan. There's a lot of jumping around, and Henry VIII is not the most likable person so I wouldn't really recommend this to readers who aren't already invested in Henry's story.
VIII follows Henry's life from early childhood through death, but significantly more emphasis is placed on his youth. Childhood through Catherine of Aragon takes up more than half the book, Anne Boleyn gets about a quarter, and the remaining four wives share the final quarter.
See a problem? The pacing and plotting of VIII was inconsistent and uneven. This is further exacerbated by pages and pages spent on Henry's early years, primarily focused on jousting, gambling, and other sporting activities. Learning about Henry's interest in jousting is good. Having it repeated over and over without adding anything new to the narrative isn't very good.
A lot of focus is also spent on Henry's visions. This was a nice way of showing Henry's belief in a god-ordained rule and his fears of deviltry (both which had a significant impact on his actions), but I think the author took things too far. I read too many pages about fictional hallucinations and not nearly enough about actual historical events.
On the positive side, H. M. Castor does a nice job providing context and motivations for Henry's actions. The psychological and historical impact of the Wars of the Roses, the rule of his parents, and the death of his brother are all explored to explain his drive for sons and empire building.
Henry's relationships with his mother was particularly well drawn, though I take issue with the way his relationship with Arthur and his father (oh what a one note villain!) was presented. I was hoping VIII would provide me with more of the "why" behind Henry's actions, and H. M. Castor does a pretty good job addressing this.
That said, once you get beyond Henry's early years, you're almost better off watching Showtime's The Tudors. As for depictions of Henry's personality, the show does a better job at displaying the nuances of Henry's character. H. M. Castor's Henry was a little too one note and rarely showed the softer, caring, passionately loving side of Henry that made him such a mercurial terror.
The most disappointing thing about VIII is how many major historical events are completely omitted or seriously glossed over. Wolsey goes from being alive and in favor, to dead. Ditto Cromwell. Thomas More is barely mentioned. Suddenly Henry is married to Katherine Howard, then all of a sudden she's dead.
Important events like this are told briefly, often after the fact, and in an extremely flippant manner. As a first person narrative, this does help establish Henry's callous personality well, but, as I said, it removes all nuance and distorts his character. His agonizing over his decisions did not come through at all.
Worth the read for Tudor fans for the novelty factor of finally having a book told from Henry's point of view instead of one of his many wives. The chapters are super short (1-4 pages on average), so even though this is a big book (my copy clocked in at 415 pages), it's still a fast read.
I think the best approach to VIII is to look at it as a part of a whole. On its own, VIII stands poorly as a one stop shop exploration of Henry VIII. But, as another book among many to read to explore the Tudor era, it proves a nice addition.
There's a lot of promise here, but I think a heavier hand on the part of the editor and a more nuanced approach to Henry's personality would have done wonders. I'm curious to see what H. M. Castor writes next, but I would check it out of the library first.
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