Much of Henry VIII’s notoriety revolves around his six wives and marital peccadilloes, and it is a refreshing change to find an author who takes the reader back to before Henry was king (when he was Hal, the “spare,” not the heir) as Harriet Castor does in the YA novel “VIII.” Told in the first-person, the author puts the reader inside Hal’s head for his perspective on life, and we begin to understand the events that shaped him and how he grew from the most celebrated, handsome prince of his day to become grotesque, suspicious, villainous King Henry VIII.
The novel begins with Hal as a boy, fleeing into the Tower of London from The Pretender (not named, but presumably Perkin Warbeck, who claimed he was the son of the Edward IV, and thus the rightful King of England). You forget—or at least I had—how much of Henry VII’s reign was spent subduing rebels, pretenders, and unifying a country divided after the 100 Year’s War. Hal grapples with fears for his life and a desire for paternal recognition. He copes by wrapping his beliefs in a scrap of prophecy, which says he’ll be King someday. Yet his belief is balanced by a terrifying apparition—one that haunts him all his life—that augurs impending disaster and seems to feed and grow on Hal’s fears, insecurities and obsessions.
The reader comes to understand the overwhelming pull of Hal’s belief in his own destiny, a belief reinforced by events in his teenage years that pave the way to the crown, such as Prince Arthur’s death and Hal’s growing popularity and strength in the tiltyard. Hal thinks he is a combination of Henry V and a knight of Camelot. He’ll become king, woo and win the Princess Catherine, conquer France and found a dynasty. He’s got the bravado of a young lion: “I’ll show them all.”
When he becomes King, events unfold as expected. Hal—now King Henry, anointed by God—wages military and political campaigns to conquer France that seem to bear fruit and Catherine of Aragon is young and pregnant wit his heir. But we all know how this ends for him: instead of a paving a glittering future he leaves a trail of death—his unborn sons, his wives, his friends and advisors.
Castor weaves a compelling portrait of how Hal the promising young Duke of York turned into the tyrannical Henry VIII. It was written for the Young Adult audience, but like many YA novels, it will garner readers from all ages. It is a great read!
“VIII” by H. M. Castor was published in Oct 2011 by Templar in the UK–US publication date pending. If you can’t wait, order it via Amazon.co.uk (I did!)