Book Review: VIII by HM Castor

Synopsis: VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family's violent past and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII.

Pages: 399

Rating: 8/10

Overall: A fast-paced look at Henry VIII's life through his own eyes. He is as fascinating as he was cruel and unforgiving. And his demons leave a sour taste in your mouth, wondering why it had to go so wrong for him.


I picked up this book ages ago, probably not long after it came out, for two main reasons: a) it's about Henry VIII (I love me some Tudor history) and b) it had been signed by the author. 

I was also intrigued by the premise of his life and reign through Henry's own eyes. I have not come across any books that have done this. In fact, I found it rather refreshing to read a book that did not wholly focus on Anne Boleyn and her legacy, though of course she is around. 

Right from the first word, the action and plot is relentless. It starts with a young Henry being rudely awakened and taken from his bed in the middle of the night. And it doesn't slow down until the very last page. In fact, the story often skips ahead several years at a time, to the next big event in Henry's life such as the death of his brother, Arthur or the birth of his long-awaited son. So, while the action is not necessarily big battles and such, it is non-stop. However, sometimes I found the skipping a bit too erratic, with nothing to indicate how much time had passed or even that any time had passed. 

The story revolves around the fact that Henry believes not only that he will be King but that his "glory will live down the ages" due to a prophecy he overhears. As things fall into place and he becomes the heir to the throne, this belief begins to colour his every decision. In Henry's eyes, his 'glory' should manifest as an empire and sons. And, as we know, particular the son part of the equation becomes an obsession that upends the whole country.

While Henry's belief in his own greatness is absolute, he is plagued by demons, or a demon in the shape of a small boy, who pops up at times of great stress and worry for Henry. This apparition scares Henry and often precedes, seemingly predicts, important events. These visions are unsettling both to Henry and the reader, and makes you wonder if and when it will finally make Henry snap.

The cast of characters is, of course, rather large, but kept to a manageable size. Recognisable names come in and out, which I found helped me know whereabouts in the timeline of Henry's reign we were.  The briefness of some of the appearances, I think, highlighted the importance, of lack thereof, of certain characters. In particular, Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, is around for a large part of the book. She comes into Henry's life when he is about 9 or 10, as his brother's wife. And when he is about 12 or 13, she becomes his wife. On the other hand, Henry's other wives, including Anne Boleyn, are only around for short times, and some are more like footnotes in Henry's life, hardly making any impact.

In scenes with Catherine, the affection and closeness between them is tangible. For Henry, Catherine is the only one who has been there since before he became the heir. In fact, one of my favourite scenes in the whole book was the scene when Henry tells Catherine he has been made to believe that their marriage is a sin in the eyes of God. Despite his current lust for Anne Boleyn, his obsession with securing the succession and her perceived shortcomings in producing a (male) heir, they have shared their lives for the past 20 years or so. It pains Henry that he thinks he has to do this to her.
Like a child, I bury my face in her shoulder. The smell of her skin is so familiar; it feels like home.
The author set out to show how the virtuous warrior prince that Henry was turned into the tyrannical ruler that he became, and I personally think it was done admirably. Traits of the precocious young prince can still be seen in the demon-haunted old king, and the beginnings of the Henry's fickle nature can be glimpsed in the young prince.

I really enjoyed this book, and its different sympathetic take on a well-known story. Henry becomes a troubled man who struggles with his faith and beliefs, rather than just a monster who kills anyone who crosses him. In fact, despite knowing the outcomes, I found myself rooting for Henry to fulfil his own perceived destiny! I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction, and particularly the Tudor time period.

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