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Saturday Selection: More In-Betweeners

November 8, 2014

Since we’re overdue for another batch of books which feature enough Anne to be of interest but insufficient Anne to justify a full post, and I’m still recovering both from a horrible November virus and Mystic Events, I give you the following.

VIII by H.M. Castor (2011)

This is classified as YA, but not the kind that ten-year-olds read — I’d put the lower limits of its appeal at around age fourteen or so. This another retelling of Henry VIII’s life as seen from his own perspective, but unlike The Autobiography of Henry VIII it’s just straight up first-person present-tense narration, so there’s no intentional foreshadowing and no clumsy interpolations from an editor or the lingering question “Why on earth would he write any of this stuff down?” It has a strong start, with the child Henry being bundled off in the middle of the night with his mother in order to keep him safe while Perkin Warbeck roams the land, picking up an army. Henry himself has overheard more than his parents think about the unwitting and long-gone catalysts of this unrest, Edward V and his younger brother the Duke of York. Henry is especially interested in the latter, both because he’s now Duke of York himself and because Warbeck was claiming to be the “real” York. And it’s while he’s living in the Tower of London and brooding on the current unrest that he first opens an old linen chest and sees, partially covered by cloth …

something hard that’s covered in black velvet. It’s not a book box, this hard thing; it’s large, curved unevenly and — running along the center — there is something ridged like a spine. I prod it. For a moment, staring stupidly, I can’t think. There is something horrible about hos solid this thing is — I sense that, even before I register the curl of straw-colored hair at the collar, even before I see it is a person: a boy, bigger than me, folded over, face down, inside the trunk, with his forehead to his knees. There is no movement in his back, no breathing, and a terrible thick feeling to the flesh beneath the clothes, like a lump of cold meat.

Not surprisingly, he bolts; when he returns, wondering if he’s found one of the lost princes, the body isn’t there. He sees it again, though, a few days later — only now it’s sitting up in a closet, apparently alive, breathing, and looking at him. He’ll see the vision of that boy for the rest of his life, looking progressively more ragged and terrifying, and always appearing at a moment when Henry has to make an irreversible decision. Henry draws his own conclusions about who the boy is, and what he means in relation to some early prophecies. Speaking as a ghost story fan, I loved how the boy’s appearances were handled. They never became less frightening, and Henry’s reactions were oddly plausible. The book itself is an excellent read and manages to expand the usual stereotype of Henry immensely by spending a great deal of time on his relationship with his parents and older brother instead of pushing them aside in ten pages or less. (Arthur, incidentally, is a power-tripping bully determined to put his little brother in his place for the good of the realm). Henry’s youth and marriage to Catherine of Aragon take up the bulk of the book, and are really nicely done. Unfortunately, one side-effect of lavishing all of this attention on the early Henry is that the story runs out of steam far too early. The relationship with Anne is brief but still vividly drawn. When Henry is dithering about how he’s being mocked for his doubts about his marriage, she goes straight for the jugular. “I think you would be glad to have it proved,” she tells him. “But the only possible proof would be your son, standing here beside you now, aged sixteen …. He is your height, perhaps. Your coloring. Strong. A great horseman. Skilled enough with a longbow to rival the best captain in your army. A leader of men in the making.”

Unfortunately her theological efforts — convincing Henry that God speaks directly to kings and doesn’t need Popish intermediaries — backfire when Henry decides that her last miscarriage means God is telling him he’s married the wrong person again. Visions of the boy in black — now looking skeletal and horrifying — convince him that England will soon be in the same sort of state if he doesn’t get rid of Anne posthaste, which he does, very quickly — he tells Cromwell to “show the world what she is”, and she’s disposed of in about a page. Jane Seymour follows her in about three more, and Anne of Cleves barely gets any more, and now you can see my main problem with the book. Anne gets short shrift compared to Catherine of Aragon, but the other four wives barely get a look in before they disappear, and the narrative begins jumping over larger and larger portions of time, to the point where I’m not sure someone who didn’t already know the story would be able to follow half of it. Still, it’s worth picking up for the first half — and, if you already know it ends, for the second half as well.

The Boleyn Deceit (2013) and The Boleyn Reckoning (2014) by Laura Andersen

The second and third books in the trilogy of which The Boleyn King was the first. These can’t qualify as Anne Boleyn novels since Anne dies (naturally) at the end of the first one, and the only Boleyn sibling remaining in this alternative universe is George Boleyn, who begins as Lord Protector and eventually moves on to become chancellor and chief contriver of devious plots — not all of which his increasingly nasty and temperamental nephew William, AKA Henry IX, are aware of. William is pretty busy himself; trying to keep the French at bay with a betrothal he has no intention of fulfilling (realistic enough), trying to keep “the Catholics” from mobilizing behind his sister Mary, and of course, trying to persuade the Mary Sue, Minuette Wyatt, to become his wife, when unbeknownst to him she’s already married one of his friends. Eventually, of course, he does discover it, and thus begins his final devolution into a monster who carries the worst traits of both Henry VIII and the Boleyn family. Or at least, the worst traits of some of the really nasty fictional portrayals of Thomas and George Boleyn — there’s no real evidence I know of that the Boleyn family were particularly partial to rape, or prolonged gaslighting of prisoners. Since we know from the beginning of the trilogy that Elizabeth will eventually become queen, it’s not a surprise to see William eventually depart the world stage, but he’s been turned into an ogre whom few readers will be sorry to see go.

While the imaginary young people are playing out their melodrama, the real people are carrying on the in the background with moderately interesting results. Several of them come to the fates they had in the real world, but by a different path (Lady Rochford and the Duke of Northumberland being prime examples) while others are changed quite dramatically. Their stories suffer for being shoved into the background — Jane Grey in particular comes across as particularly flat, I think some potential was wasted there — but it was still interesting enough to keep me reading, and in a few cases arguing. One irritant which carries over from the first book is the constant use of “the Catholics” and “the Protestants” as descriptors of what seem to be the only two factions in the kingdom, and only the latter of which contains people who are remotely intelligent or appealing. “The Catholics” back up Mary Tudor, pigheaded, stubborn, and treated unsympathetically even as her brother is very, very nasty to her. “The Protestants” back Elizabeth, who is wise, sympathetic to Minuette’s troubles, smarter than her brother, and knows that England must remain Protestant because apparently she’s read ahead in the history books. Fortunately Elizabeth takes a decided turn for the realistic by the end and becomes gratifyingly self-interested and unpleasant as well as intelligent and far-sighted. So if you like alternative history with a big topping of alternative-alternative historical melodrama (since it features a whole cast of people who were never born) then you’ll enjoy these. I certainly did.

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From → Book Overviews

5 Comments
  1. Annalucia permalink

    Thanks for the summaries of the Laura Andersen book. I read the first one, liked the alt-hist but was bored by the fictional characters, so I didn’t bother with the others.

    • sonetka permalink

      There’s actually a good bit of alt-hist with real people in the second two, mostly George Boleyn being a Machiavellian statesman, which I enjoyed a lot. OK, so he wasn’t particularly attractive as a character but it was nice to see him grow into his potential and get to use his brains, if not always for attractive purposes. I think my main problem with imaginary young people is that it presupposes not just one change — Anne’s son survives to be born — but quite a few of them in that certain imaginary adults exist and have children around the same time. Obviously as time went on after the prince’s birth, things would start to diverge more, and marriages would take place and children would be born who weren’t in reality because of the changed political atmosphere (no ascendancy of the Seymour family, for starters — and whom would Catherine Parr and Catherine Howard have ended up with?). But William’s imagined contemporaries are all his age or older. Why, oh why, couldn’t the real small scions of noble houses been cast? I would have loved to see, say, the alternate-reality Jane Grey taking the lead, although she would probably have had a different name in a world where Jane Seymour did not become queen and bestow her own name on her goddaughter :).

  2. There is so much to enjoy in “VIII”. The young Henry who is unlucky to be beaten up both by his brother and then his father, the spectre of the boy (who becomes Henry’s own personal Dorian Gray) and Henry’s mother appearing a vision on a barge, floating on the Thames when she has died (like some scene out of “Don’t Look Now”).

    It charts his childhood with great detail as Henry realises Yorkist looks and nature, mean that his father, brother and grandmother all view him with acute distaste. It also means he is dependent on his band of cronies (eg Compton, Brandon etc) to provide emotional support.

    The book’s main failing is that it should have ended when Henry becomes King. Instead the story continues and because Henry is now an adult, it falls down as it becomes difficult for young readers to empathise with him. It also gallops through his story at breakneck speed. If I were Castor, I would have picked up the story, after Henry’s accession but written as an adult novel.

    Nevertheless, the prose sparkles and is far more riveting than the turgid “Wolf Hall”. I have heard that Castor will be turning her attention on Henry’s daughters and their childhood and I look forward to reading that in the future.

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, I thought it lost steam after his accession; I it should have been two books (an interesting take on a duology — the first book for children, the second for adults). Still, well worth a read, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what Castor does with Henry’s daughters.

  3. Sorry to be so late to the party, but I’ve only just gotten around to reading VIII–right now I’m about halfway through it. (Read The Boleyn King, but it did little for me and I never got around to the rest.)

    The scene in VIII I like best so far is the one where Henry and his father face off, with Henry chafing at having to do practical, financial duties instead of jousting and swordplay–since, after all, he considers it his “destiny” to get France back as Henry V did. He talks in terms of fairy-tale romance and honor, while Henry VII, who’s SEEN the realities of kingship and war, tells him, “Wake UP! Henry V DIED getting France back and the whole thing led to years of war that we’re only just NOW coming out of! This is REALITY, not one of your chivalric romances!” When Henry protests against the dishonor of breaking his betrothal to Katherine, his father goes on in the same vein–that political alliances shift with the wind and “honor” has nothing to do with it.

    I liked that a lot because when you look at it, it’s a pattern Henry lived all his life–acting as if life were a courtly romance, only to react in ugly ways when it didn’t quite turn out that way. He was “Sir Loyal Heart” to Katherine–until she had no living sons and became a liability. He played all those silly games in court when he went about in disguise and expected everyone not to know who he was. He played the yearning lover with Anne–and you know how THAT turned out. He tried the same sort of disguise game on Anne of Cleves, expecting her to be captivated with the handsome stranger he still believed himself to be–and was rudely brought back to earth when she reacted to him like the obese middle-aged man he was. He soothed his ego with Katherine Howard, fooling himself that he was still the golden hero who had swept a young virgin off her feet–and when he found out she wasn’t that besotted virgin, that she had loved someone before him and was having an affair with someone else after marriage, he went ballistic and poor Katherine paid the price along with Dereham and Culpeper.

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