Saturday Selection: More In-Betweeners
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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