This is the second in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series set in Tudor England and following the investigations of hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The action in Dark Fire takes place a year or two after the events of the first book, Dissolution, which I loved, but although I would recommend reading the books in order it’s not essential and this is a complete story in itself.
Dark Fire is set during the summer heatwave of 1540 as Henry VIII prepares to cast aside his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and marry Catherine Howard. Thomas Cromwell, the man who was instrumental in arranging the marriage to Anne, has fallen out of favour with the King and needs to regain Henry’s trust as quickly as possible. When he witnesses a demonstration of Greek Fire (sometimes called Dark Fire), a legendary Byzantine weapon capable of destroying a ship in minutes, Cromwell thinks he has found the perfect way to impress Henry. The problem is, only a tiny amount of Greek Fire remains and the secret formula to produce more has gone missing.
Meanwhile, Shardlake has been approached by a client, Joseph Wentworth, whose niece, Elizabeth has been arrested for murder. Shardlake is convinced she is innocent, but as the girl refuses to say a word in her own defence it seems that even our hero’s skills as a lawyer will not be enough to save her. At the last minute Cromwell intervenes; Shardlake can have more time to investigate and to attempt to clear Elizabeth’s name – but in return he must help to discover the ancient secrets of Greek Fire, which Cromwell has promised to present to the King in twelve days’ time.
I enjoyed Dark Fire; everything I remembered from the previous book was here again – the thorough research, the atmospheric descriptions and the insights into 16th century society. Where this book is even better than Dissolution, in my opinion, is in the characterisation of Jack Barak, the rough, outspoken young man whom Cromwell chooses to assist Shardlake in his task. Barak and Shardlake are such different personalities, with such different strengths and weaknesses, that they form the perfect partnership. Watching their relationship develop was one of my favourite things about this novel.
The first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, was a murder mystery set almost entirely within the confines of a monastery. Dark Fire has a wider scope, with Shardlake and his new assistant, Barak, embarking on a race around London as they try to locate the ancient formula and prove Elizabeth’s innocence before their time runs out. Their journey takes them from prison cells and taverns to law courts and churches, and along the way they experience the best and the worst Tudor London has to offer: one day Shardlake is attending a ‘sugar banquet’ at the elegant home of the aristocratic Lady Honor, the next Barak is climbing down a well in the middle of the night to look for evidence.
Both of the novel’s central mysteries were intriguing, particularly the Greek Fire one – and both present their own set of difficulties and dangers to Shardlake and Barak. It appears that the Wentworth family (with the exception of Joseph) are more than happy for Elizabeth to take the blame and don’t want outsiders trying to interfere, while the Greek Fire mystery seems to result in death for anyone who gets too close to the truth. The appeal of this book for me, though, was not so much the plot as the wonderful portrayal of Tudor life. I’m pleased that I still have another four Shardlake novels to read, beginning with the third in the series, Sovereign.