Book review: The Last of Days by Paul Doherty

The Last of Days by Paul Doherty

The Last of Days by Paul Doherty

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King Henry VIII is dying – the once powerful king reduced to a mound of putrid, bloated flesh – but like a hunted and wounded boar, he is still ferocious, still dangerous and still lethal.

In his milestone 100th novel, historian, academic and school headmaster Paul Doherty whisks us back to the tarnished court of ‘his Malignant Majesty’ to witness the last throws of the dice in Henry’s turbulent 37-year reign.

And it’s a thrilling, gut-wrenching experience as, through the eyes of Will Somers, the royal jester whose barbed quips have cheered and chastened the king for over 20 years, we witness the court vultures circling even as the king’s diseased body slowly fails.

A cross between a thriller, a Tudor history and a haemorrhoids-and-all 16th century medical treatise, The Last of Days is literally the last word on the demise of a king who shaped England’s future.

As always, Doherty’s epic tale is defined by his prodigious descriptive powers which transport us back to Westminster Palace with such visual vigour and breathtaking realism that we can almost smell the rotting flesh and catch a whiff of treason in the air.

In the winter of 1546, 55-year-old King Henry, regarded as a ‘prince among princes’ in his golden youth, lies upon his deathbed diminished by sickness and haunted by ghosts from his past.

While the royal physicians try to heal his festering leg ulcers, only Will Somers, the king’s long-serving jester and confidant, can help the dying monarch’s final bid to ease his troubled mind.

Will has become Henry’s listening post, his whipping boy, his father confessor, the watcher who tells him ‘what the common tongue wags’ and an ever-ready, attentive audience for the royal tantrums, temper and tears.

As Henry, his slit eyes still ‘bright with malice,’ looks back down the years to those he has loved, destroyed and sent to their deaths, Will begins a journal that will document the king’s final account of his life and its last turbulent days.

The country is fraught with tension as the ‘furious thunder’ of a shadow court pays service to a shadow king. Prince Edward, the sickly royal son and heir, is just nine years old and the power-hungry councillors, waiting like a pack of ravenous wolves, will stop at nothing to seize the throne.

Rebellion threatens amidst widespread rumours of plots against the king and with few allies remaining, Henry might well become the final victim of his reckless, bloody reign…

One senses the historian in Doherty has enjoyed weaving this riotously dark, stark tale in a period of the Tudor epic which is less familiar than the heady, beheading days of Henry’s marital maelstrom, whilst the novelist in him has relished the intimate incursion into the gruesome physical realities of the ‘Malevolent Monster’ of Westminster’s last days.

The result is a gloriously entertaining, fictional exploration of a tyrannical king turned putrid, paranoid and self-pitying yet still wielding deadly power and pulling the strings of a court steeped in ‘dark deceits and false favours.’

Read and enjoy…

(Headline, hardback, £19.99)