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.
The copy for VIII states that it will do "for Henry what Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell - VIII is Wolf Hall for the teen and crossover market." I don't dispute that VIII most certainly introduces the life of VIII, but I have definite misgivings about the novel.
Key amongst these is the pacing of the novel. Over half of VIII tackled the early life of Henry and his marriage to Catherine, after the death of his brother. The remaining half showed the rest of his reign and the other five wives. In a novel that only just tips 300 pages, that is far too much to try and squeeze into the final half of the book. It made for a very rushed narrative, where Castor was unable to really showcase the way in which Hal changed from charming young man to absolute tyrant. When this came after such a leisurely opening, it caused me to catch my breath. It also meant that whole swathes of Henry's reign were not even touched upon - the whole monasteries malarkey wasn't even mentioned, and I believe this could and should have been added to the narrative.
The other facet of VIII that I didn't enjoy much was the ghost story/horror element. You have here one of the most famous personalities of all time; one of the most horrific tyrants; one of the most boisterous and downright larger-than-life monarchs - VIII didn't need any embellishments of this sort. It could have stood on its own two feet simply telling the crazy story of this King who beheaded two of his wives and divorced two others; destroyed the monasteries and introduced himself as the Head of the Church. Who needs ghosts when you have all of that actual material?
Lastly on the negative front, I found the style of writing a little odd - first person, but in a present tense e.g. "It's a beautiful morning, and the sunlight makes a halo around my mother's figure as she walks." Because this is such an unusual narrative choice in the novels I read, I found it jarring and that feeling never entirely left me.
Despite this failings, I still found myself entertained enough to read through VIII. Skipping the 'boring' bits and focusing on the soap opera style relationships and tensions of Henry's life definitely made it an interesting read. Castor has a nice flair for narrative (aside from the POV choice) and, for younger readers, it provides a good stepping on point for historical fiction. It has enough historical accuracy to appeal, and presents a decent perspective of Henry and how he became the tyrant we all know.
VIII is a decent stab at historical fiction for younger readers - and, in fact, one of the main failings was not being longer, so that Castor could do justice to the life of Henry VIII. Having said that, through personal preference I'm not sure I could read a longer novel from first person present tense perspective! Castor effectively showcases the monster that Henry is believed to have been, from arrogant young boy through to a man who truly believes he is God's hand on earth. An effective, although rushed, novel.