VIII, H M Castor

There are some periods of history which have been so thoroughly mined by writers of historical fiction that there would appear to be nothing new left to say. So when someone recommended that I read VIII, my initial response was ‘Must I read  yet another novel about the Tudors?’. Thank goodness I did. It may be a crowded marketplace, but VIII is different.

For a start it is narrated by Henry himself. The novel opens during the Perkin Warbeck rebellion and we are plunged into the confusion and terror of the young Hal as he is dragged from his bed in the middle of the night to be taken to the safety of the Tower of London. The way in which Castor uses this scene to establish the historical context without falling into the trap of clumsy exposition is admirable. She cleverly links the young Hal’s recognition of his mother’s uncertainties about the fate of her brothers with his own doubts about his role as the overlooked second son so that when he begins to be haunted by visions of a tortured young boy it seems natural rather than supernatural. One of the puzzles of Henry VIII is how he developed from Tudor golden boy into monstrous tyrant. The way in which Castor uses the device of the wraith to connect the troubled recent past, Hal’s own suppressed doubts about the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, and his ambiguous position as the despised second son who becomes the heir barely tolerated by his father, means that his eventual descent into monstrous madness seems not only natural but inevitable.

The novel spends considerably longer on Henry’s early life, giving an intimate portrait of his relationship with his parents, his older brother Arthur and his secondhand bride, Catherine of Aragon. The closely observed realistic detail of Tudor life, particularly in the first half of the book, is one of its greatest strengths and means that as the story gathers momentum, galloping from one abandoned wife to the next driven by Hal’s spiralling madness,  the reader is rooted in time and place sufficiently well to withstand the furious pace.

Using the first person point of view means VIII is not event driven and makes transition from glorious boy to tyrant psychologically convincing.  It also means that the novel can be boy-oriented without defaulting to the swords and slashing mode that seems to characterise much historical fiction aimed at boys.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to pupils from Year 7 right through to A-Level, and although the c-word is not always a popular commendation among writers of YA fiction, this is very definitely a novel that adults will enjoy too. Castor’s next book will explore the contrasting characters of Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. I can’t wait to read it.

Crewel, Gennifer Albin

The boom in dystopian YA fiction shows no sign of turning to bust just yet, but that’s got to be a good thing when it throws up a book as good as this. Crewel serves up many of the familiar tropes that readers will be familiar from the Hunger Games, Divergent,  et al; a spiky heroine Adelice, who needs to conceal her unusual powers, a technocratic world controlled by a secretive and powerful elite, a love triangle… but the resulting novel is considerably more than the sum of its parts.

Crewel’s underlying theme, like that of the Hunger Games, is taken from Greek mythology. Where Collins used the Theseus story to underpin her novel, Albin’s plot echoes the ancient myth of the three fates who spin the thread of human life and decide when to bring it to an end. Born on the highly regimented world of Arras, Adeline is chosen to be a Spinster, one of the sequestered female elite who weaves the fabric that holds their world together. Torn from her resisting family, she struggles against the sinister Guild Ambassador Cormac Patton, finding help in unexpected places as she attempts to piece together what is really happening beneath the surface of Arras.

Alongside the inevitable romance, there is a strong feminist strand to the book which will appeal to its target readership. Adeline is a heroine very much in the mould of Katniss Everdeen and character delineation in the book is totally subservient to the demands of the action, but the quality of the writing lifts the whole novel well out of the pedestrian. Crewel is a real pageturner, I read the whole thing in a single sitting and I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next instalment to find out how Albin moves the action on from the inevitable cliffhanger ending.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

Worthy double winner of both this year's Carnegie Prize and the Kate Greenaway prize for its evocative illustrations, this is a poignant story of teenage Conor's struggles to come to terms with his mother's imminent death. Ness deals sensitively with  difficult issues and is unsparing in his depiction of the young boy's anger, rage and despair as his mother inches closer to death. Honest, moving and beautifully written. Don't read it in public if you mind people seeing you cry.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

Yes, yes, I know, another book about terminally ill teenagers. But this one is really special. Witty, funny (no, they are not the same thing, of course they're not) it tells the story of two bolshie teenagers who aren't ready to die, but aren't quite ready to live either. In the end they do both. And you will cry dear reader, but you will be glad you read the book.