Lamentation by CJ Sansom

When I heard the exciting news that there was a new Shardlake novel – Tombland – coming in October, I remembered that I still needed to read Lamentation, the sixth book in the series, so I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it sooner rather than later and be up to date in time for the new one.

Lamentation is set in London in 1546, about a year after the previous novel, Heartstone, ended. Henry VIII is in poor health and although it is treason to predict the death of a king, it is obvious to everyone who sees him that he can’t have much longer to live. Having broken away from the Roman Catholic Church several years earlier, it now seems that Henry is slowly moving England back towards Rome. A power struggle is taking place at court between the religious traditionalists and the reformers, while those suspected of heresy are being hunted down, tortured and burned at the stake. Even the Queen herself – Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr – is not above suspicion, and when a book she has written on the subject of her faith, titled The Lamentation of a Sinner, is stolen, she knows her life could be at risk.

Our narrator, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has worked for the Queen before, and it is to Shardlake that she turns again to ask for assistance in finding the missing book. Despite having vowed to stay out of politics following the events of Heartstone, Matthew can’t resist a request from his Queen, but when the first page of the manuscript is found clutched in the hand of a murdered printer, the danger involved in the mission becomes clear.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Shardlake novels, but I think this is one of the best in the series. It’s a long book, with over six hundred pages, but at no point does it ever start to feel slow or repetitive. The plot is complex and does require some concentration – it’s important to try to remember the religious and political backgrounds of various characters and which are allies and which are rivals, especially as various groups of suspects begin to emerge – but in my case I was so absorbed in the story my concentration never wavered for a moment anyway. I always find Sansom’s portrayal of Tudor England very immersive; he manages to make the history of the period easy to understand, but without simplifying things too much, and shows us how the decisions made by those in power affect the lives of ordinary people who are just trying to survive from day to day.

As well as the search for Catherine’s stolen book, there is also a secondary mystery taking place in which Shardlake is representing a client who is locked in a feud with her brother over the wording of their mother’s will. Most of the Shardlake novels have multiple storylines and sometimes they feel a bit unconnected, but everything in this book comes together very effectively. The two feuding siblings are on opposite sides of the religious divide and this eventually has implications for Matthew.

Of course, Matthew doesn’t have to deal with all of this alone. His friend and legal assistant, Jack Barak, is there for him as usual and always ready for an adventure – although with Jack’s wife expecting another baby, Matthew is reluctant to let him get involved. He also has a new assistant – Nicholas Overton, a young man who has been sent to London to study law – and over the course of the novel he comes to value Nicholas’s courage and loyalty. Another old friend, the doctor and former monk, Guy, is back too, but their friendship is put under strain by Guy’s disapproval of Matthew’s mission and the very different religious views they each have. Nobody, including Shardlake, ever comes out of a Shardlake novel entirely unscathed and this is why, although it would be possible to treat the books as standalones, I still recommend reading the series in order. That way, you’ll be able to watch the characters develop and see how the things that happen in one book affect their lives in the next.

By the end of this book Henry VIII is dead, to be succeeded by his son, the young Edward VI. The change of monarch – and the consequences this will have for the country – is sure to bring new challenges for Shardlake but we will have to wait for the publication of Tombland to find out what they are.

This is book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Who would be a queen?

I certainly wouldn’t, based on the stories of the two 16th century queens I’ve been reading about recently!

The Last Queen The first of our two queens is Juana of Castile, also known as Juana la Loca (‘the mad’), whose life is retold in fictional form in The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner. I think most of us will have heard of Juana’s younger sister, Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII who was divorced so that the King could marry Anne Boleyn, breaking away from Rome in the process. Juana’s story is less well known (outside Spain, at least) and less often covered in historical fiction, but just as interesting and tragic.

Juana is the third of five children born to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, whose joint rule has brought together the two Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The King and Queen have arranged marriages for all of their children, in the hope of forming political alliances, and Juana finds herself married against her will to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite her initial feelings, Juana quickly falls in love with her new husband – but her happiness doesn’t last long. The deaths of her elder brother and sister leave Juana as her parents’ heir and her relationship with Philip changes as a result.

Influenced by the scheming Archbishop Besançon, Philip sets his sights on taking the throne of Spain for himself and Juana finds herself betrayed and accused of insanity. Even as she discovers that the very people she should be able to trust want only to bully and manipulate her, she remains determined to fight for her throne and her country.

This is the first of C.W. Gortner’s books I’ve read and I will definitely consider reading more. I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and dramatic novel which took me through a period of Spanish history of which I previously knew almost nothing. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing which brings each of the various settings to life, from Granada during the Conquest of 1492 to the extravagance of the French court.

Gortner is a male author, if you’re wondering, and he writes very convincingly from the perspective of a young woman in this novel. Whether or not Juana actually suffered from mental illness is debatable; the point of view taken in this book is that the ‘madness’ developed as a result of years of stress and suffering – and branding her mad was a convenient way for her enemies to prevent her from ruling. I don’t know enough about her to say whether this is likely or not, but I did love Gortner’s portrayal of Juana and wished she could have had a little more happiness in her life.

The Taming of the Queen Our second queen is Katherine Parr, sixth and final wife to Henry VIII, whose story is told in The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory. I hadn’t really intended to read this book as I find Katherine one of the less interesting wives and, having read several other fictional accounts of her life (including Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle and The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd), I didn’t imagine this one would have anything new to add. When I saw it in the New Books section of the library, however, I couldn’t resist reading it – and I’m pleased I did as I found it to be one of Gregory’s better Tudor court novels.

Katherine Parr (or Kateryn as her name is spelled in this book) could be seen as one of Henry’s luckier wives, outliving the King and managing to avoid both divorce and beheading, but this doesn’t mean that she was happy or that she didn’t fear for her life at times. By this stage of his life Henry is, shall we say, past his prime: Gregory describes (sometimes in too much detail!) his gluttony at banquets, his bodily functions and the smell of his ulcerated leg. Add to this his temper, unpredictable behaviour and obsession with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and you can see how difficult things are for poor Kateryn, especially as she has been forced to give up her secret love for Thomas Seymour.

Kateryn finds some comfort in getting to know her new stepchildren – Mary, Elizabeth and Edward – and restoring them to their places at court, and also in religious study. She welcomes preachers to her rooms (including Anne Askew, who was later burned at the stake) and as a result of this narrowly escapes death herself; she debates religious reform with her ladies and sometimes with the King himself; and she writes several books, becoming the first Queen of England to publish under her own name.

Kateryn is an intelligent and mature woman who has already been widowed twice before her marriage to Henry and she is able to tolerate her situation and handle the King’s whims in a way that a younger, less experienced girl may not have done. I liked her, but I felt that there were times when Gregory attributed words and actions to her that didn’t feel consistent with the way her character was being portrayed. This made me think that maybe she is more comfortable writing from the perspective of younger, livelier narrators.

This is an entertaining read and if you’ve never read about Katherine Parr before, it provides a good overview of her life and of the final years of Henry’s reign (events such as the sinking of the Mary Rose are covered in dramatic detail). I did prefer Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, though, and would recommend that book ahead of this one.

Have you read any other novels about Juana of Castile or Katherine Parr? Which are your favourites?

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's Gambit So many novels have been written about the six wives of Henry VIII I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read another one. Queen’s Gambit seemed to be getting such good reviews, though, so I thought I would give it a chance. I was intrigued by the comparisons to both Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, two very different authors, (though now that I’ve read it, I can tell you I found it more similar to the former than the latter) and I also liked the fact that, at least with this edition, the publisher has avoided the usual front cover image of a ‘headless/faceless woman in a pretty dress’ which most recent Tudor court novels seem to have.

Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Katherine Parr. If you’re familiar with the rhyme used to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives (Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived), Katherine Parr was the sixth and final wife – the one who ‘survived’. While Katherine’s story may not have been covered in historical fiction as often as some of the other wives, particularly Anne Boleyn, I have read about her before so already knew the basic facts about her life.

Katherine comes to the court of Henry VIII after her husband Lord Latimer dies leaving her a widow for the second time at the age of thirty-one. Soon after her arrival, she falls in love with Thomas Seymour, one of the brothers of the late queen, Jane Seymour. However, Katherine has also caught the eye of the King, who plans to make her his sixth wife. By this stage of his life, Henry is no longer the handsome prince he once was: he has grown fat, he’s suffering from an ulcerated leg, and added to the fact that his previous wives have met such unhappy fates, Katherine has no desire to marry him. She doesn’t dare defy the King’s wishes and accepts his proposal of marriage, but during the years that follow she is unable to forget Thomas Seymour, even after he is sent away from court on a diplomatic mission. Meanwhile, life at court is growing increasingly dangerous for Katherine and as she becomes more deeply involved in the reformed religion she realises that she needs to be very careful if she’s going to survive.

This story is told from two very different perspectives: one is Katherine’s and the other is Dorothy Fownten’s. Katherine is a dignified, mature and intelligent person which makes her easy to like and sympathise with as she learns to cope with life in the treacherous, unpredictable Tudor court, never being sure who can and cannot be trusted, and knowing that two of her predecessors have already lost their heads. Dorothy, known as Dot, is Katherine’s maid and while Katherine moves in the innermost circles at court, Dot is on the outside and can take a more observant and unbiased view of things. I liked both women but I found Dot a more engaging character. Having read a few books about Katherine now, I don’t think she’s really a great subject for historical fiction – there are a lot of other queens’ lives that are much more dramatic and interesting to read about – so some of my favourite parts of the book were actually those that concentrated on Dot’s personal story rather than Katherine’s. When I read the author’s note at the end I was surprised to discover that there really was a maid of that name who served Katherine Parr, though the way she is portrayed in the book is largely fictional.

Another character I enjoyed reading about was Dr Robert Huicke, the King’s physician who becomes a good friend of Katherine’s. Through Huicke we also meet Nicholas Udall, the playwright most famous for writing one of the first English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister. Huicke’s relationship with Udall, as well as his friendship with Katherine, adds another interesting angle to the story.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I thought this book felt more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a Hilary Mantel and I don’t think the comparisons with Wolf Hall are justified, but I did still enjoy it. Queen’s Gambit is apparently the first in a Tudor trilogy – the second one will explore the lives of Lady Jane Grey’s two sisters, Catherine and Mary, and the third is going to be set in the Elizabethan court. I’m looking forward to reading both.

I received a copy of this book through Netgalley for review.