The scene is set in Tudor England, 1527, in the reign of Henry VIII. Kit, the son of a baker, enters this historical novel on a plague cart “wedged between the smelly and already rotting corpses of the two people he loved best in the world”, his parents. This is The Ravenmaster’s Boy by Mary Hoffman, author of the Stravaganza series, David and Shakespeare’s Ghost. Author Hilary Mantel calls this novel a “dark but charming Tudor tale”, and it is certainly both of those things. The matter of Henry VIII’s treatment of his wives has already spawned a wealth of literature, and schoolchildren in Britain make verses to remember which of them was divorced, and which beheaded. In creating a young adult protagonist, Mary Hoffman casts a gaze of innocence on a period of history that stinks of self-interest and manipulation of the facts. Of the treatment of Anne Boleyn by the king, Kit says, naively but striking the nail on the head, ‘Was there no one to stand up for her and tell him he was doing wrong?”
The sometimes gruesome facts about the last days in the life of Anne Boleyn as she awaits her execution in the Tower are presented honestly by Hoffman, with a whimsical blend of regret and bravado, leaving readers space to come to their own conclusions about the motives of such larger-than-life historical figures as Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. Hoffman certainly draws on past representations of these Tudor terrors in historical fiction, but still we feel as though we are meeting them for the first time because we are seeing them through the eyes of an adolescent. Kit is old enough to understand the realities of life, but young enough not to be corrupted by them. The purity becomes contagious; he even manages to persuade Cromwell to help the queen, despite the fact that Henry’s henchman had worked so assiduously to do the king’s will. Cromwell muses, “Is it ever painless? … feeling his own thick neck”.
Hoffman dives into the black holes of this clouded period of history, imagining sub-plots behind the main ones, which, had they not been foiled, could have changed the course of British history. The brief foray into alternative history, which comes near the close of the tale, acts as a poignant reminder of how things could have panned out differently. The future of Boleyn’s daughter Elisabeth hung by a thread once her mother’s head was cut. Did Cromwell lift a paw to save her? Maybe he did. But as with many other events of that time, the detail is elusive. It’s as though England buried its head in the sand rather than witness what it was powerless to prevent: a king who put his groin first.
Hoffman’s protagonists are often teenage boys. In David, a novel about Michelangelo’s model for his most famous statue, the narrator is a typical eighteen year old, who learns the lessons of love and life, morphing from boy to man as he sits for the sculptor. Like David, The Ravenmaster’s Boy has that cross age appeal. It is an easy enough read for young adults, but historical fiction adult fans will also enjoy it.
There is another element to Hoffman’s book, a nod to magical realism: the anthropomorphism of the ravens of the tower. The idea of talking animals has a long tradition in English literature. J.K Rowling used talking animals in the Harry Potter series, not to mention the great JRR Tolkien, who must have inspired much of Rowling’s work. You may have an aversion to anthropomorphism, and perhaps you are allergic to cats, but the literary device of knowledge through the mouths of the beasts goes back as far as the Ancient Greeks, and is easier to buy into than you might think. The ravens are Kit’s spies, who return from their missions to devour “blood-soaked crusts”, a dark echo of the appetites of their human counterparts. Historically, the ravens were apparently attracted by the executions of the Tower, and said to stand by while the crown dispensed with its enemies, ready to feast on their blood — hence the saying that the crown will fall, and the city with it, if the ravens leave their post. Presumably that means that a little head rolling is essential for continuity. Now there is a saying that has never lost its relevance. Even so, Henry’s own particular brand of ruthlessness has always been hard to swallow. Wisely, Hoffman makes her ravens into heroes instead.
Any Cop?: A taste of history, a dash of magic and a delicate flick of gore.