December 1546 and King Henry VIII, ruler of England for nearly forty years, instigator of the English Reformation and husband to six wives (in case you weren’t aware) is seriously ill. Despite being an accomplished ruler in his prime, time has taken its toll on both Henry’s body and mind. He can see everyone plotting around him – but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t aligning themselves against you. And the best defence is to spin your own designs to ensnare your enemies…
Will Somers has been court jester and confidant of the King for over twenty years, and is tasked by Henry to chronicle these final days. But there are people who see Somers as an obstacle to be removed – and Somers finds himself powerless to stop events spinning out of control.
Paul Doherty’s first book – The Death Of A King – proposed a possible alternative to the generally accepted story concerning the death of King Edward II. By drawing together a number of oddities concerning the events, he presented a plausible alternative. There’s a certain symmetry in Paul’s 100th book taking a similar line with another monarch. There are probably less questions concerning Henry’s end, but there are some odd issues – for example, why did Henry’s massive corpse explode within its coffin, despite having been previously embalmed?
It’s been a bit of a Paul Doherty month on my blog, as you may have noticed. Five out of the nine reviews this month (including this one) have been his books, in part due to the need for a reliable read during some enforced bed-rest at the start of the month and in part due to me realising that this book, Paul’s 100th novel, almost perfectly coincided with my 300th review – so it seemed apt, in a mini-celebration, to review a couple of more obscure titles from his back catalogue. Well, The Whyte Harte and A Time For The Death Of A King will still be obscure until early June 2013 when virtually all of Paul’s back catalogue arrives on ebook.
Those two books were quite apt choices, as they took two historical mysteries – or at least historical events that have raised a few questions over time – and weaved a narrative around the events. This is a style that the author has returned to with The Last Of Days.
I think it’s safe to say that King Henry VIII is not someone who you would care to meet, even in his prime. A ruthless man at the best of times, he was accustomed to being an absolute ruler. But as he aged, and his health worsened, he became truly terrifying.
The narrative is littered with tales (all of them undoubtedly true) from throughout Henry’s reign, all of them demonstrating his ruthlessness, whether it concerns his dealings with his wives, his enemies or his (former) favourites. There are other chilling demonstrations of Henry’s opinion that he could do no wrong – did you know, for example, that during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he destroyed the bones of Thomas a Becket by shooting them out of a cannon. Because he could. Nice man. No wonder people plotted against him.
The first half of the book sets the scene, introducing, through the eyes of Somers, the principle players, the Council surrounding Henry and their machinations. As the story progresses, everyone’s loyalty comes into question as both Henry and his “loyal” servants make their moves.
I’m wary of saying too much as the structure of the book is one of its strengths, so I’ll leave the summary there. What I would say is that anyone coming to this book expecting an Athelstan-eque romp around Bluff King Hal should probably look elsewhere – the Roger Shallot books, for a start. This is definitely not a traditional murder mystery in any way, shape or form, but it’s all the better for it. In fact, it’s closer in structure to a spy thriller – rather than questioning who is the guilty party, it’s much more of a question of what each member of the cast is guilty of – and virtually everyone is guilty of something.
As ever, Paul Doherty paints a vivid picture of a time long gone, and the characters leap off the page – which is very important as most of the book consists of people talking. As the book goes on, you get to know the individuals, such as the rather terrifying Chancellor Wriothesley, someone that I’d never heard of, but am now rather fascinated by.
There’s also a fascinating epilogue, set several years after the rest of the narrative, where we discover what happened to the various members of Henry’s council after his death, and much of that will come as no surprise.
All in all, the book is much more history than mystery – so probably the worst choice I could have made for my 300th review – but Paul was nice enough to send me a limited edition proof of the book, so I’ll turn a blind eye to that. It’s a riveting read and anyone who is interested in King Henry VIII should pick it up – and if you’re not, read it anyway and you will be by the end. Most works about Henry detail his life, so it is refreshing to read about the end of his days.
One quibble – now I want to know what happens next – as Somers survives until 1560 (he, alongside almost everyone else in the book, were real people), I’d love to see a similar book detailing the fate of Queen Mary*. Or I could do what Paul’s work has inspired me to do in the past, whether it be for Edward I, Edward II or Richard II, and go and read about it myself. Paul Doherty’s work has sparked a genuine interest in history, in particular the medieval world, and that in itself is the highest praise that I can give him. Highly Recommended and roll on the next 100 books!
* Just realised that there is one – the fourth Nicholas Segalla book, In The Time Of The Poisoned Queen.