Anyone who reads this blog knows that I LOVE historical fiction. It’s my favorite genre. I’ve also read quite a bit of nonfiction about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When I saw this YA book offered a modern, high school retelling of their romance, I was intrigued. Is their story so timeless that it can be dropped in any setting in any era?
THE PLOT: Henry Tudor is the Big Man On Campus at his exclusive high school, but he’s still not quite happy with his life. He lives in the shadow of his older brother Arthur, who died. He’s even inherited Arthur’s former girlfriend, Catherine. They’re expected to marry because their families believe they’re an appropriate match. Yes, their families are so snobby that Henry is criticized for being the football quarterback instead of spending all his time on the debate team. After all, debate will help prepare him for his future political career. Football is just a sport.
Then he meets new student Anne Boleyn, a dangerous rebel type. She’s got a bit of a past, and she’s very different from the in-crowd. She immediately annoys Henry’s friends when she puts them in their place for being jerks. But she captivates Henry by being wild in a way he’s never known before. They’re drawn together in a passionate romance that just might be love. But their relationship may not survive everything working against them–including Henry and Anne’s own destructive natures.
MY TWO CENTS: I tried to measure this book in two ways: as a retelling of a nonfiction historical relationship, and as entertainment provided by a YA book.
The emotionally explosive relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn literally changed the world, and people have studied the couple for hundreds of years. What about Anne Boleyn was so captivating that Henry broke away from the Catholic Church to have her? Obviously Henry wanted a legitimate son, but he risked everything for Anne, a commoner with no connections and radical ideas about religion. And once they were finally married after years of waiting, how did all that passionate love turn to passionate hatred so quickly? Was it just about her three failed attempts to bear a son? It’s likely that the conspiracy that brought about her execution was manufactured by Cromwell…on Henry’s orders. Had he just tired of her enough to have her killed? Or did he possibly come to resent how much he’d had to change for her? Had he just become crazed from his own power? Henry claimed until his death that Anne had bewitched him.
So how does this book incorporate the historical facts into modern teen life? Well, it’s got the general structure: Henry as a leader (student council president); dating Catherine, who was first his dead older brother’s girlfriend. Henry is emotionally disconnected from Catherine. He doesn’t really want his brother’s leftovers. This is sort of a pale imitation of Henry VII’s eventual divorce from first wife Catherine of Aragon, citing the Bible passage about marrying his brother’s wife as the cause for their lack of a male heir.
Anne enters the picture as someone completely different from anyone Henry has known before. She doesn’t seem to care about appearances. She doesn’t immediately suck up to him for his social position. But none of Henry’s friends likes her, partially because they wanted her as their own conquest. Aside from the main characters, there are references to friends like Charles (Brandon) and Marie (a stand in for Henry’s sister, Mary?) and Wyatt (“noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am.” If you don’t know this reference, do look it up).
Unfortunately, because it’s a novel about teens, the real story has been pretty watered down to just the essence. A teenage Henry obviously doesn’t feel the desperate drive to produce a son before it’s too late. He just wants Anne to help him act out, to break out of his structured life. All their passion seems more like teenage hormones, not a force of nature. The change of Henry’s feelings for Anne seem based mostly on jealousy as the conspiracy set up by his friends entraps her. However, the reader does see hints of his own self-involvement, self-preservation, and general douchebaggery as he contemplates “no longer being under Anne’s spell” and starts looking for the next girl…possibly the cute waitress, Jane Seymour.
How does it read purely for YA entertainment? It’s a little difficult for me to answer that question, but I think I’d be disappointed with the ending if I didn’t know the background story. The story has a strange, abrupt ending, like the real-life story did, but a lite version. Teen readers may not get Henry’s motivation, or feel satisfied with the resolution since there’s no justice for Anne and no punishment for her tormentors. Maybe that’s the whole point—art mimics life in the lack of a happy, or at least reasonable, ending, and leaves you wondering where this went so wrong. I’m hoping that readers who are unfamiliar with the history might be curious enough to go looking for details of the real story. This book could be a great way to generate interest in nonfiction for those who might otherwise dismiss history as “boring.”
NOTE: For those concerned with such things, the book is full of strong language, and there are scenes of sexual activity.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting concept that didn’t quite make it for me. May not be satisfying to those reading for the YA story, but could be a gateway to getting younger readers interested in historical fiction or nonfiction.
TEACUP RATING: Three out of five teacups.
ON SALE DATE: Available September 1, 2015, in hardcover and eformats.
Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.