Note: I was given early access to this novel in exchange for writing an impartial review. Thank you NetGalley and Random House. Scheduled publication date: May 30, 2023.
This novel covers the life of the ever-notorious English King, Henry VIII by the well-respected historian, Alison Weir. It reminded me a bit of author Margaret George’s 1986 book, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII. They’re both long, they both look at unfolding events from Henry’s perspective, and both try to offer some insights into the man behind the reputation. I gave this one four stars on Goodreads but 3.5 might be more accurate.
One of the reasons historical fiction is my favorite genre is because I’m interested in an author’s depiction of an actual historical person as a fully fleshed out human being, with speculation about why each behaved as they did — how their individual humanity ultimately impacted historical events. What were they thinking? What motivated them? How might they have been damaged by life circumstances?
In my opinion, Weir did this very successfully in her six-novel series about Henry’s wives*. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything new or particularly interesting about Weir’s exploration of Henry’s psyche. And I don’t feel that I know or understand him any better. Instead, I felt I was reading an episodic survey recounting his life and reign, with all documented events included. And I particularly didn’t believe the way in which Weir seemed to give a big pass to Henry around the fall of Anne Boleyn.
Overall, the novel felt like more of a blend of historical fiction and traditional biography. Lots of detail about politics, rival court factions, and building projects that did not seem to add to a better understanding of the man. Almost as though Weir (wearing her historian’s hat) felt she had to include everything about Henry that had been historically documented.
I also found some of the integration of historical documentation on the clumsy side. For example, Weir includes a few direct quotes from Henry taken from historical records. Only to me they felt stuck in because the language Henry actually used back in the 1500s (reflected in the direct quote) was nothing like the voice Weir gave him throughout the rest of the book.
My understanding is that Weir began writing non-fiction long before becoming interested in historical fiction. So, maybe that makes it harder to let go of some of the facts and history she knows so intimately and focus more on the psychology and character of the King. And, as she explains in the Afterword, after writing novels each of Henry’s wives, she felt obligated to create one about Henry himself. Of course, the thing about diehard Tudor fans like me is that we NEVER get tired of reading about Henry and trying to understand him. Which is probably why so many historical fiction authors keep writing books about him. An audience will always be waiting to read them. Flaws and all.
More about the author, Alison Weir.
*You might be interested in my reviews of other books by Alison Weir, including her series about the wives of Henry VIII:
KATHERINE OF ARAGON: THE TRUE QUEEN
ANNE BOLEYN: A KING’S OBSESSION
JANE SEYMOUR: THE HAUNTED QUEEN
ANNA OF KLEVE: THE PRINCESS IN THE PORTRAIT
KATHERYN HOWARD, THE SCANDALOUS QUEEN
KATHARINE PARR, THE SIXTH WIFE
or Weir’s novel about Henry’s mother: