Review: VIII

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VIII
by H. M. Castor

★★★½☆

2013 (originally published 2011) • 432 pages • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

The throne is his… and he is only 17.

We’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of the American cover to H. M. Castor’s VIII here at the Church of Bowie. Every time Captain Cinema chances across it (she raids my books, I raid her movies; it’s a symbiotic friendship), we end talking about how marveling at someone ascending the throne so young is silly in the Tudor era, when the average life expectancy was thirty-five. Researching that last sentence took me down a wonderful rabbit hole about how to calculate average life expectancy in a situation with a very high infant mortality rate, but my point still states: seventeen was well of age in Tudor England.

But the point is not historical accuracy; the point is to reframe the infamous Henry VIII so that readers will approach him with a bit more of an open heart than they might otherwise. As you may be able to guess, I’m a Queen Elizabeth I fan (I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth: The Golden Age, okay?), and only really think of Henry VIII as a major bummer. For the young adult audience VIII is heavily marketed towards, I imagine their impressions are largely the same. But H. M. Castor—little sister to Helen—expressly states, in the supplemental material in the American paperback edition, that she wanted to dig deep into Henry VIII’s psyche. If he was so lauded as a young man for his strength, virtue, and beauty, how did he become such a monstrous figure in English history?

(Before you ask, VIII was published in the UK in 2011 by Templar Publishing, a year after The Tudors concluded. I imagine the two are related but don’t particularly care.)

I, with my limited knowledge of English history, would argue that Henry VIII was a banal villain of history—nothing worse than the entitlement of a man who believes himself answerable only to God and finds himself with the means to exert that entitled will on the rest of the world. Castor does not neglect this straightforward view of the king. Towards the end of the novel, I was delighted to discover that she never shies away from showing Henry—or Hal, as she calls him to reframe him—at his worst. Her purpose is fictionalized biography, not appealing to today’s youth. (I grow weary of historical protagonists in young adult fiction who are far too modern for their time period. So very weary.)

But Castor also argues that Henry VIII was haunted by visions—specifically, by a ghost with a surprise identity. (It’s… it’s not that much of a surprise.) The device could be a great manifestation of his entitlement, ambition, and failures, but it begins appearing when he’s just a little kid. The ghost is also too literal; it’s often the source of any scenes where Henry VIII’s temper gets the better of him, sourcing that historical fact in this speculation. (It also whisks the dying Henry VIII to his eternal reward at the end of the novel, so, you know, do with that what you will.) While Castor lays most of the blame for Henry VIII’s many failings at his own feet, the idea of even assigning some of it to something out of his control without any real historical precedent feels odd.

However, VIII does make me think about the future of fictionalized biographies for the young adult market. I’m always interested in books expressly written for young adults that don’t feature young adult protagonists. They’re rare, but they always end up showing me exactly what elements constitute a young adult novel outside of content. (It’s the grounds for young adult being its own genre, although I still can’t bring myself to call an audience a genre.) While it does focus heavily on Henry VIII’s youth, it still follows him through his entire life, from his obsessive desire for a son to his attempts to conquer France to his final days. Its breakneck pace means that plenty of important scenes from his life are elided or even excluded, which means that VIII is more of an introduction to the man or a supplement to a straightforward biography than satisfying in its own right.

I rented this book from the public library.

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