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.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies This is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second in a planned trilogy of novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

While Wolf Hall was concerned with Cromwell’s rise to power, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and the process that led to Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, in Bring up the Bodies the King has grown dissatisfied with his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has failed to give him a male heir, and he is now turning his attentions to Jane Seymour. Beginning in 1535, just after Wolf Hall ends, this book follows Cromwell as he attempts to find a solution to Henry’s problem. It’s not an easy task but Cromwell has already proven himself to be an expert at negotiating complex political situations and getting what he wants, while also trying to do what he believes is best for the King and for England.

I think most of us probably know what happened to Anne Boleyn and what her eventual fate would be, so I won’t say much more about the plot of this book. But although I’ve read about Anne Boleyn’s downfall many times before, I have never read about it from this perspective or in so much detail. By allowing us to follow events through Cromwell’s eyes, Mantel makes what to many of us is a familiar story feel like a fresh and interesting one – and in a world already filled with Tudor novels this is a real accomplishment!

I was intrigued by the suggestion that Cromwell had his own motives for plotting the demise of Anne and the men who were brought down with her. I don’t suppose we can ever know what thoughts were really going through Cromwell’s mind or what made him act the way he did, but Mantel’s theory was interesting. As in the previous book, Cromwell is a fascinating character and portrayed as neither a hero nor a villain. He’s ruthless, clever, ambitious and (in this book, at least) vengeful, but away from the court and the world of politics, we are shown a more human side to him. Through his relationship with his son, Gregory, and through his frequent memories of his wife and two daughters and his mentor Thomas Wolsey, who are all now dead, we see that he is also a man who loves his family and is loyal to his friends.

You could probably read Bring up the Bodies without having read Wolf Hall first, especially if you already have a good knowledge of Tudor history, but I would still recommend reading Wolf Hall before starting this one. It’s not completely necessary but will help you to understand Cromwell’s personality and how his mind works. You will also be introduced to the members of Cromwell’s large household (made up of extended family, servants and employees) and the other secondary characters who appear in this book.

Mantel’s novels are not easy reads but I did find this book much easier to read than Wolf Hall, maybe because I knew what to expect from her writing style this time. One criticism that I and many other readers had of Wolf Hall was regarding Mantel’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ without making it obvious who ‘he’ refers to. It was usually safe to assume that ‘he’ was Cromwell but it could still be confusing, especially when there were a lot of male characters in the same scene. In this book, Mantel still uses ‘he’ but sometimes clarifies it by adding ‘he, Cromwell’ which makes things easier to follow. I also found this a much quicker read than Wolf Hall, as it’s not as long and is faster paced and more focused on one subject – the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Now that I’ve caught up with the first two books in the trilogy, I can join those of you who are patiently (or maybe impatiently) awaiting the third one!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall The year is 1500 and in the London suburb of Putney, young Thomas Cromwell lies on the ground being kicked by his father, who is drunk. Thomas recovers from the beating this time, but he knows he needs to get away from Putney before it happens again and so he runs away to sea. After returning to England several years later, Cromwell enters the service of the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and begins to play an increasingly important political role. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell as he rises in power to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and helps to negotiate the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

This is one of those books I have thought about reading many times over the last few years but have never got around to actually doing it despite its popularity and Booker Prize success. Joining a readalong in the summer gave me the motivation to read it at last and although I didn’t keep up with the readalong schedule after the first couple of weeks I did still finish the book and am pleased to be able to say that I enjoyed it.

I didn’t know much about Cromwell before reading this book, but he has appeared as a secondary character in other historical novels I’ve read and he has always been portrayed very negatively – ruthless, cold and calculating. The famous portrait by Hans Holbein (shown below) does nothing to dispel this image! And so it was good to read a novel that showed Cromwell not as a villain (if anyone is portrayed as a villain in this book it’s actually Thomas More) but as an intelligent, charismatic, complex human being with both positive and negative qualities. Something that really comes across strongly is how well Cromwell has done to rise above his unhappy childhood and humble origins as the son of a blacksmith to become a confident, accomplished man people turn to for advice and leadership – one of the most powerful men in England. But while it was fascinating to read about the important historical events of the period and the political machinations that were going on behind the scenes, I also loved reading about Cromwell’s life at home. As well as his wife and children, Cromwell’s household expands over the years to include an assortment of other family members, servants, wards and employees and in Cromwell’s interactions with all of these people we see another side of his character: a kinder, more compassionate side.

Thomas CromwellMantel’s writing is descriptive without being flowery and she really brings her Tudor world to life. Every little piece of information she gives us, however trivial it may seem, helps to slowly build a full and vivid picture of daily 16th century life – what people ate, how they dressed, the books they read and the games they played. To say the book was well-researched would be an understatement – I couldn’t believe how incredibly detailed it was! As someone who has read a lot of Tudor novels I’m already familiar with this period and many of the historical figures who appear in Wolf Hall and I found this to be an advantage, as Mantel assumes the reader has at least some knowledge of the period. If it’s been a while since you’ve read anything about the Tudors, it might be a good idea to remind yourself of some of the historical facts surrounding Henry VIII’s divorce, marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting separation from Rome before you start reading.

Before I read this book I had heard a lot about Mantel’s excessive use of pronouns – specifically, the word ‘he’ being used without making it clear who ‘he’ was. I quickly discovered that it was usually safe to assume that ‘he’ was Cromwell but ‘he’ was also frequently used to refer to two or three other people who were taking part in the same conversation, which could sometimes cause confusion. The dialogue itself is modern enough to be easy to understand without feeling too inappropriate, though sometimes Mantel uses quotation marks to indicate speech and sometimes she doesn’t, leaving you to decide whether a character is speaking or just thinking. As I’m not usually a fan of experimental or quirky writing styles this was one of the reasons I had resisted reading this book for such a long time, but it actually didn’t bother me as much as I thought it might. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the book and I wish I hadn’t let it put me off.

I’m now looking forward to reading Bring up the Bodies, hopefully before the final book in the trilogy is released!