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.

Heartstone by CJ Sansom

As part of my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project, I knew that I would, at some point, need to read CJ Sansom’s Heartstone, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2011. Knowing that it was the fifth book in a series, though, and not having read any of the previous ones, I decided to start at the beginning with Dissolution and take my time working through them all. This was a good decision as I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole series – and now that I’ve finally read Heartstone, I won’t be stopping here but will be going on to read the sixth book, Lamentation, as well.

Like the earlier novels, this one is set in Tudor England and narrated by the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. It’s 1545 and with news of a huge French fleet about to cross the Channel, England is preparing for invasion. On Henry VIII’s orders, an army is being raised and warships including the Great Harry and the Mary Rose are getting ready for action in the harbour of Portsmouth. Meanwhile, Shardlake is also heading for the south coast on his latest mission for Catherine Parr, the Queen.

It has been claimed that “monstrous wrongs” have been committed against a young ward of court, Hugh Curteys, by his guardian Sir Nicholas Hobbey, and the Queen wants Shardlake to investigate. Accompanied, as always, by his assistant and clerk Jack Barak, Shardlake sets off on the journey from London to Hampshire, falling in with a company of soldiers on the way. On arriving at the Hobbey estate, it is obvious that there is something not quite right – but with Hugh insisting that he is not badly treated, how will Shardlake ever find out what is going on?

As if this wasn’t enough, Shardlake also has a second mystery to look into. In the previous novel, Revelation, he met Ellen Fettiplace, a woman who has been confined to the Bedlam for many years. With his work for the Queen taking him close to the village where Ellen grew up, he decides to do some investigating of his own in the hope of finding out what happened to her all those years ago and how she ended up in the asylum.

Poor Matthew; things just don’t run smoothly for him in this book and he is forced to acknowledge that he has been too “full of righteousness” – not a bad thing for a lawyer to be, you might think, but it does seem that he spends a lot of time trying to help people who really don’t want to be helped. Like Barak (who is desperate to get home in time to see the birth of his child), I found him quite frustrating with his refusal to leave things alone and take note of the warnings he is given, but of course that is what makes him feel so real and so human.

As I said, I’ve enjoyed all of the books in this series and this one is no exception. It isn’t my favourite, though, mainly because I felt that it was much longer than it really needed to be and that there was too much padding while Shardlake and Barak moved backwards and forwards between one location and another without anything happening to advance the plot. It didn’t help that I guessed the solution to one of the mysteries early in the book (probably because I have read a few other books recently with similar twists, and not because it was made particularly easy to guess) and had to wait a very long time for Shardlake to work it out for himself!

One thing I always love about the Shardlake novels is Sansom’s wonderful, vivid depiction of life in Tudor England. In this book, we are dropped right into a country making preparations for war (an unpopular and expensive war), and we learn a lot about the weapons and armour that are used, how men are recruited into the army and the training they undergo, as well as being treated to a long, dramatic description of the sinking of the Mary Rose at the Battle of the Solent. At the end of the novel, Sansom provides a detailed historical note in which he gives more information on the background to the story and separates fact from fiction.

Although I didn’t love Heartstone as much as some of the other books in the series, it was still a great read and I’m looking forward to joining Matthew Shardlake again soon in Lamentation.

This is book #5 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Revelation by CJ Sansom

revelation 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.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom

sovereign-cj-sansom Sovereign is the third in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series set in Tudor England and I found it every bit as good as the first two. The front cover states that it is “So compulsive that, until you reach its final page, you’ll have to be almost physically prised away from it”. Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was certainly a gripping story and while I’m not sure that it really needed to be over 600 pages long, I never found myself getting bored.

The novel opens in 1541, as Henry VIII embarks on his Progress to the North, a state visit with the aim of allowing those who rebelled during the recent Pilgrimage of Grace to make their formal apologies to the king. The royal progress is heading for York – and so are lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak. Officially, Shardlake will be dealing with petitions to the king made by the people of York, but he has also been given another task to carry out. An important prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, is due to be brought from York to London, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, has asked Shardlake to take responsibility for Broderick’s welfare as he doesn’t want the prisoner to die before he can be questioned in the Tower.

Shortly after arriving in York, the murder of a glazier leaves Shardlake in possession of a chest of documents which, if they fall into the wrong hands, could be used to destroy the king. Shardlake barely has time to look at the documents before they are stolen again, but the little bit of knowledge he has gained puts his own life at risk. To make matters worse, he and Barak stumble upon a liaison between the king’s wife, Catherine Howard, and one of her courtiers, Thomas Culpeper; it seems that danger is closing in on them from all sides.

The first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, was set in a monastery, and the next, Dark Fire, took us into the heart of Tudor London; Sansom did a wonderful job of bringing those settings to life and he does the same here with York, capturing the mood of the people in the aftermath of a failed rebellion – people whose political and religious beliefs are not necessarily in alignment with the king’s. I enjoyed reading about the preparations for the arrival of the Progress and what was involved in providing food, accommodation and other amenities for not just the king and queen, but also their entourage of hundreds of courtiers, attendants and servants.

If you haven’t read the previous two books, I don’t think it’s completely necessary as this one does work as a standalone mystery with a beginning, middle and end, but I think I would still recommend reading them in order. There are some recurring characters in the series and it would be best to get to know them from their first appearance.

Barak came into the series in the second book, Dark Fire, and his relationship with Shardlake continues to develop in this book, but it also becomes strained after he falls in love with Tamasin Reedbourne, a servant in Queen Catherine’s household. There is no woman in Shardlake’s life and it does seem that he is jealous of Barak’s relationship with Tamasin – not because he’s attracted to Tamasin himself but because he resents his friend having another attachment. Shardlake comes across as quite a lonely person, I think, which is understandable as he has spent a lifetime being shunned for having a hunched back. He suffers a lot of cruel jibes and ridicule during his time in York, including a humiliation at the hands of the king, which completes the disillusionment with Henry which has been growing in him since Dissolution.

I have barely mentioned the actual mystery yet, but I can assure you that Shardlake does have a mystery to solve in this novel. It centres around a conspiracy dating back to the days of Edward IV and Richard III and I found this element of the story interesting as it showed the extent to which information relating to the Plantagenets was suppressed and covered up by the Tudors. For me, though, the mystery was secondary to the characters and the vivid Tudor setting.

I think this was probably my favourite of the Shardlake novels so far, but I still have another three to read and am planning to continue soon with the fourth one, Revelation.

Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire 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.

Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution Reading C J Sansom’s alternate history novel Dominion a few months ago reminded me that I still hadn’t read any of his Shardlake books, despite meaning to for years. I noticed last week that my library had the whole series available as ebooks, so it seemed as good a time as any to get started with the first one, Dissolution.

Dissolution is set in the winter of 1537, just after the death of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. Having broken away from the Catholic church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, the King, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, has begun the process of dissolution of the country’s monasteries. After the closure of some of the smaller religious houses in the north led to rebellion, Cromwell is now taking a different approach and is sending commissioners to the larger monasteries to offer pensions to the monks in the hope that they will voluntarily surrender – or if not, to search for signs of fraud, corruption or other legal reasons to close them down.

At the monastery of Scarnsea, on the coast of Sussex, disaster strikes when one of Cromwell’s commissioners, Robin Singleton, is found brutally murdered in the monastery kitchen. Cromwell sends another of his men, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, to investigate the mystery of Singleton’s death and discover what has been happening at the monastery. Accompanied by his assistant Mark Poer, Shardlake sets out for Scarnsea but what he learns when he arrives there convinces him that the commissioner had been about to make an important discovery before he was killed.

As a murder mystery, there’s everything here that you would expect: the detective and his sidekick, the isolated house (monastery in this case) cut off from the rest of the world, the small group of suspects each with their own secrets and motives, and the usual string of clues and red herrings. But what made this book stand out for me among other historical mysteries was the fascinating setting and detailed portrayal of monastic life. There are some obvious similarities with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, although this is an easier read – and set in a completely different time period, of course.

I have read other novels that focus on the dissolution of the monasteries (books such as The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau, for example) but usually from the point of view of the monks and nuns whose way of life has been destroyed. This book is narrated by Shardlake himself and it’s interesting to see dissolution from his perspective, as a dedicated reformer. Shardlake gradually becomes disillusioned with Henry and Cromwell, but for a long time he tries to justify what they are doing and it is only towards the end of the book that he allows himself to have doubts. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that Shardlake is a hunchback and has spent his life trying to overcome prejudice and rejection. The fact that he has had to deal with a disability in a time much more unenlightened than our own adds another dimension to his personality.

Having taken so long to get round to reading this book, I’m pleased that I did enjoy it! I correctly named the murderer quite early in the story, but while I would like to pretend that I had cleverly managed to solve the mystery I have to admit it was really just a guess. This didn’t spoil the rest of the story at all, though – I had to wait until almost the end of the book to find out if I was right and even after Singleton’s killer was eventually revealed, there were still one or two other developments that took me by surprise! I will definitely be continuing the series with the second book, Dark Fire – but probably not immediately.