After reading Sovereign recently, I was desperate to continue with the next of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries – and luckily for me, I managed to find a copy of Revelation in the library the next day. I had said that Sovereign was my favourite in the series so far, so I was curious to see whether Revelation could possibly be as good. Well, it is; it’s even better! Before I continue, though, just a quick warning: although I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers here, this is the fourth book in the series and the appearance of certain characters in it will mean you can rule them out as suspects in the previous ones. My recommendation would be to start with book number one, Dissolution, and work through them in order.
Revelation is set in 1543, the year in which Katherine Parr becomes the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, and after their adventures in York (described in Sovereign), lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak are back in London. Shardlake has no desire to become embroiled in any more mysteries, but when a friend is found dead with his throat cut and his blood turning the water of a fountain red, it seems he will have no choice.
The dead man’s widow, Dorothy, is an old love interest of Shardlake’s, and he promises to help bring her husband’s killer to justice. However, it soon emerges that this is just the latest in a series of bizarre murders and, at the request of Archbishop Cranmer, Shardlake agrees to investigate. His involvement will bring him into contact with a circle of powerful men, including Edward and Thomas Seymour, brothers of the late Queen Jane, who have their own reasons for wanting the killer caught. Meanwhile, Shardlake has also taken on another intriguing case, one which involves a young man whose obsessive praying has resulted in imprisonment in the asylum known as Bedlam and could lead to him being arrested as a heretic.
As a murder mystery, I thought Revelation was excellent. There are plenty of suspects and although my guess turned out to be completely wrong, looking back I think we were given enough clues to at least have a chance of solving the mystery. I loved the way the murders corresponded to passages in the Book of Revelation from the Bible. The deaths are quite gruesome, but I didn’t find the book excessively graphic – although it depends on how high your tolerance is for that kind of thing, I suppose.
Four books into the series, I feel that I’m getting to know Shardlake well and I’m able to settle into his narration from the very first page. I think one of the reasons I find him such an engaging character is that, while he’s generally likeable, he does have flaws and he does make mistakes and lose his temper from time to time. He doesn’t seem to have much luck with women and I wondered if he would find love with Dorothy this time. I won’t tell you whether he does or not, of course! Barak isn’t faring much better in the relationship stakes either. I was quite fond of him in the previous novels and I still am, I think, but his treatment of Tamasin in this book really frustrated me.
Barak is by Shardlake’s side, as ever, as he investigates each murder, but I was pleased to see that another of Shardlake’s old friends, Guy Malton, also has a big part to play in the story. Guy, the former monk from Scarnsea Monastery in Dissolution, is now working as a physician in London and his medical skills prove to be very useful in establishing the causes of the deaths and also in offering assistance to the boy locked in the Bedlam. However, Guy has taken on a new apprentice whom Shardlake dislikes and distrusts from their first meeting, and this puts a big strain on their friendship.
In addition to all of this, we are treated to the usual vivid portrayal of Tudor life I’ve come to expect from Sansom, drawing us into the political and religious debates that marked this stage of Henry’s reign. I found it all fascinating and am looking forward to reading Heartstone, which I hope I’m going to enjoy even more than this one.