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Strange how one chance 'suck it and see' purchase of a book in a charity shop can subsequently dictate where a lot of your time goes. It was such incident which led me to first read C J Sansom's 'Shardlake' series, detective novels featuring the humpbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake during the rule of Henry VIII and a time of great religious and social turmoil.
Now both my other and I are hooked, and between us have bought all of the books currently published in the series.
It shouldn't have taken me as long to read this book as it did; I was belting through it having finished the first book in the series, when my (or rather, mum's) copy decided to slide inelegantly into a rapidly-filling bath. Looking at it sat, moping on the drying wrack in the bathroom for four days, was a form of torture. Because it's really, really good.
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII, is the lead character in this series of books by C J Sansom. His first outing was in Dissolution, a murder mystery set at the height of religious formation, a cause which Shardlake was supportive of. His appointment to that murder case was at the hand of Lord Cromwell, with whom he was associated as a supporter at the time.
Now we meet Shardlake a few years after the Scarnsea murder case. He has distanced himself from Cromwell and the Lord's position is under threat as Henry VIII tires of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In the time since his last case he has conducted himself simply as he always intended, as a lawyer, and as he approaches his forties he even contemplates retirement in the countryside.
Then a friend contacts him with a troubling case; his orphaned niece is the obvious suspect in the apparent murder of her own cousin. But the girl will not talk and so she faces the excruciating form of torture known as 'the press' to try to force her into confession. Can Shardlake make her talk in time to save her?
All seems lost for the young girl until intervention from above makes itself known at the last moment; Cromwell has sent word to the courts that the girl is to have a stay, his way of manipulating her lawyer back into his service on a much larger case.
Cromwell has been contacted, and seen demonstrations by, people who claim to have uncovered and recreated Greek Fire - a monumentally devastating weapon of war which could be just the thing to restore Cromwell to the favour of the King. But both they and it have gone missing - and Cromwell demands that Shardlake, accompanied by Cromwell's man, the somewhat uncouth Jack Barak, trace the potential source of his redemption within two weeks.
So Cromwell is thrust back into a world that he had tried to stay out of, one of political and religious pressure and turbulence, and realises that in order to save the young girl he has come to believe is entirely innocent, he must once again serve Cromwell, and yet again doing so brings great risk to himself and those around him.
In my review of the first Shardlake book, I remarked that it was in some ways quite hard to warm to, as indeed was Shardlake himself. Here you see a softer side and a smoother writing style; indeed I soon found myself well into the plot and racing through the pages - which is not to say that it is an easy read, because it is still a well thought out plot and it is well structured and written.
As well as Shardlake being more human and easy to associate with, his new partnership with Jack Barak, the rather harsh and cynical aide of Cromwell, brings another new dimension and their working relationship soon settles into a believable scenario of almost resentful respect for one another, which in time starts to gel into a proper working partnership as the danger against them becomes more apparent. And, as with Dissolution, the book takes in a notable period in the history of the reign of Henry VII; the emotions this inspires within the characters is believable throughout.
And then the plot itself. It is perhaps more sensational than the Dissolution plot, but it is still crafted in a way which makes it believable and holds the tension both in the main plot and also the subplot of the girl apparently almost lost to madness and the strange family behind her story.
So, do I recommend? Well I did recommend the first book and I think this is far better, so yes - definitely. It is an easier read that would probably appeal to more than Shardlake's first outing but loses none of its authenticity and tension. Shardlake himself is becoming a character more likeable and more suited to carrying a series and his interaction with new characters is far superior to how it was in the first effort. I enjoyed this quite a lot more than the first book and I now can't wait to move on to the third - which I am assured by my mother is the best of the bunch. So defintely another five stars from me as I bolt towards the next book.
This the second book in C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series sees the hunchback lawyer from Lincoln's Inn in London helping a friend work out why his neice has been blamed for the murder of her cousin. In doing this he becomes embroiled with Thomas Cromwell again, someone he really does not want to be involved with after the events of the previous book. Unfortunately he has no choice and is partnered up with Barack, Cromwell's man to try and piece together the mystery of Greek Fire. This is an ancient weapon that Cromwell has managed to loose and he is worried about his head, because Henry VIII has been on the throne for over 30 years and is not happy with the match that Cromwell arrange with Anne of Cleves. As the situation becomes ever more desperate for both Shardlake, Cromwell and his friend's neice the adventure really becomes fast paced.
As ever this book is full of historical detail that really brings everything to life. Sansom always includes a historcal note at the end of the book, so you can see what was fact, fiction and rumour. However, I would say this book should be required reading for all history students, because it brings the Tudor times alive (as well as being lots of fun) and really made me want to find out more.
All in all a great second book in the series that made me want to read the others!
In the second book of C S Samsom's series, hunchback lawyer Shardlake is thrown again into a complex and politically motivated plot against the king. I have to say that i hestitated to read this when i was lent it but was absolutely captivated after just a couple of pages. Sansom evokes the sights and sounds of tudor London for his reader such that you almost feel yourself recoil from the book. Fast paced and constantly throwing curved balls, the plot is unpredictable and will keep you on the edge of your seat. A historian originally, Samson provides a historically accurate background for his story and so the reader learns something of history as they read. For me, a huge bonus because i never even noticed i was learning it until i knew an answer on Mastermind for the first time ever. I read this out of order with the others in the series, i didn't matter in the slightest. If you read nothing else this year, read this.
Dark Fire is the 2nd book in the series staring ficitional character Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer in the time of Tudor England. I surprisingly enjoyed the first book in the series, Dissolution, I say surprised because the plot doesn't sound too exciting but the book itself was excellent. I certainly wasn't disappointed by this 2nd book.
Dark Fire is set 2 years after Dissolution and again we meet up with Shardlake, and the events of this book are set in London itself. Shardlake is helping a friend, Joseph who's niece, Elizabeth, is in jail accused of murdering her young cousin Ralph, a 9 year old boy. However, Joseph believes Elizabeth to be innocent and not a murderer... however she refuses to speak to anyone, not even plea in court. Joseph desperately calls on Shardlake for his help who soon feels as if all is not right with the story behind this murder and decides to take the case on to help Elizabeth before she faces the rack for refusing to plea. Suddenly however the judge decides to give Elizabeth 9 days to plea, Shardlake wonders at this sudden kindess and it's not long before the reason behind this is revealed.
Thomas Cromwell, whom we met in Dissolution as Shardlake worked closely with him, is back demanding Shardlake's service in return for him telling the judge to give Elizabeth those 9 days. Shardlake is annoyed with this as he has purposefully distanced himself from Cromwell since the events 2 years ago, but feels he has no choice but to do as he says. He is forced to work with an assistant of Cromwell known as Barak, whom Shardlake dislikes at first.
Cromwell is involving Shardlake and Barak in the mysteries surrounding something known as Greek Fire, a strange substance which sets alight easily and burns everything it touches quickly. Cromwell has seen a demonstration and means to bring this before the King in 9 days... however all is not well, and we're soon involved in yet more murder's set around the City.
I personally loved this book in comparison with Dissolution. Despite there being 2 different mysteries to solve, they were not hard to keep up with and I was eager to find out who is behind both. Shardlake seems to uncover new areas to investigate and you just don't want to put this book down, as it flows along nicely and has you guessing how it's all going to turn out, only to find out you're wrong, and there's more suspects to ponder over.
I was completely hooked with the storyline, and found some bits quite amusing! For example at one bit during the book they're struck by a mysterious clear substance which comes from the 'faraway snow lands' which burns the throat and makes you feel extremely drunk...
C. J. Sansom has wonderfully described Tudor London in this book, and it's a big reason why I preferred this to the first book which was set at a distant monastery. You can almost smell the stink of the City, and see the horrible waste and begging, along with the cramped and unpleasant housing in comparison to the houses of the more rich that he visits, with their large tapestries and tasty banquets. He has captured the fear of the time perfectly, people afraid to discuss religion as rumours are about that the King is looking to divorce Anne of Cleves and is courting Catherine Howard, so will he go back on his reformist ways? Of course we all know what happens concerning this, but I can imagine how this would have been the gossip of the moment.
This 2nd book has made me even more keen to read the next one in the series, Sovereign. I wouldn't say it's totally necessary to read the first book before this one, however I would say it helps as a couple of references are made to it and it helps you understand the character of Shardlake more. However if you did find the first book good or just average, you will certainly be impressed with this one as I believe it to be a far better book than Dissolution!
I cannot help but feel I have done myself and the author of the Shardlake series C.J.Sansom a disservice by not reading his amazing novels in their correct order. As some of you may have read my Revelation review I was literally hankering after my next one in the set, on seeing Dark Fire in Asda for £4.77 I stupidly bought it without noticing it is the second in the series, meaning I have now read the fourth and the second! Needless to say this has caused me some problems which I have sought to overlook in my review.
Dark Fire is another tale featuring my new favourite detective, Master Shardlake, a lawyer who more often than not deals in property and civil matters and likes to keep himself to himself and is a quiet humble sort of fellow. He is an enigmatic and likeable character who once again I was instantly drawn in to like, the reader sees his personal struggle with his lack of religion and quiet maintenance of his status as he resolves his personal struggle with his hunchback, a deformity that makes him human and so different from our other detective heroes.
In Dark Fire Shardlake is set to help a girl, Elizabeth Wentworth who is from a good family and is charged with the murder of her young cousin who it is believed she threw down the well. Elizabeth refuses to speak which helps generate and spur the ill-feeling against her and encourage those that feel she is possessed by the devil. Her failure to speak will result in an immediate death penalty or worse the rack and Shardlake is tasked with the unenviable responsibility of trying to help her. A reprieve from imminent death is granted for ten days but in return Shardlake must complete a task for Earl Cromwell (Thomas if your interested, not Oliver, who would have thought two of them could exist and cause me to make a fool of myself in a pub quiz!). The task involves delving into the darkest and murkiest underbelly of London in search of Dark Fire, or Greek Fire to those in the know. Shardlake is joined by one of Earl Cromwell's closest aides Barak and over the course of the novel the unlikely pairing faces danger, murder and treachery round after bend not only to find and defeat the holders of the dark fire formula but to ensure it does not reach the wrong hands all this on top of the 10 day deadline to uncover the truth about the Wentworth girl. Throw in a love interest and sub-plots of deceit and good old fashioned treachery and you have yourself a flipping good read!
I hope the above plot summary whet your appetite as I will not be giving too much more away! The magic in these books for me is the storytelling, you weave through Tudor London often feeling as though you are actually sat beside Shardlake on his horse, Sansom builds fear and tension so well and his description of some of the murder scenes are so real you can almost taste the smell of the blood. The imagery utilised by the author is incredible and you do begin to see the sights, hear the sounds and even smell the sewage that enveloped London during those times.
Already mightily fond of Shardlake your whole being becomes weighed down with the tension and stress as the story rolls on, from the moment you begin to read you become absorbed and in my experience that kind of skill only belongs to a very gifted writer.
The developing relationship between Barak and Shardlake is well orchestrated (I know from reading Revelation how this relationship pans out and from that respect the eventual outcome of this book held no surprise for me) at first they are at odds, then they grew to respect one another before the dark event they are witnessing and experiencing pulls them closer together still.
I have mentioned it in a prior review, but it is so fundemental to the success of the book that it is worth mentioning again, that the author's legal experience and academic success in the field of history have certainly helped create a formidable combination of real, engrossing historical descriptions and a true, tangible insight into the legal process of that era making it a fascinating novel.
I recently recommended this series of books to a colleague who loves her murder mystery novels and I do think anyone who reads that type of novel would enjoy this it broadens the genre, it is so deeply involved in the history of the times it becomes much more of a historical thriller with the murderous acts and mysteries thrown in for good measure making it an extraordinary enrapturing read.
My final parting words are that I cannot bring myself to knock off a star even though I think I should have left it longer than a few days to read the next one as the style became slightly repetitive but still an outstanding book.
Paperback: 500 pages
Publisher: Pan Books; (3 Jun 2005)
This is the second book written by C J Sansom about the adventures of lawyer Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII.
I have reviewed the first book, Dissolution, and in that review I mentioned how 'hit and miss' historical fiction can be. Dissolution, in my opinion, is an excellent example of great historical fiction - you can almost see the sights and smell the smells of Tudor London (although sometimes, particularly in this book, I'm VERY glad you can't). I was nervous that Dissolution would have raised the bar too high, and that I would be let down by book two, but I really needn't have worried.
The book starts assuming you have read Dissolution, and to be honest although I don't feel you would NEED to have read Dissolution to enjoy Dark Fire, I can't see why you wouldn't want to and think that you would get much more out of it if you did. You would certainly be able to empathise with Matthew Shardlake's change of heart in the matter of religious reform and his ambivalent attitude towards Thomas Cromwell, who is a very grey character indeed in this book.
In Dark Fire, Cromwell uses a case Shardlake is defending - that of a young girl accused of murdering her cousin, by granting the girl a couple of weeks grace before she is 'pressed - to get him back on the investigative trail. This time Cromwell is after the secret of Greek Fire...
In my opinion one of the best aspects of this book is the introduction of Jack Barak, one of Cromwell's men who swiftly becomes Shardlake's new assistant, replacing Mark Poer. As far as I'm concerned, the replacement is a good one. Mark was fairly one dimensional as a character, but Jack has the element of danger, and is a man of the streets. Shardlake is likeable as ever, he retains his vulnerability and his desire for acceptance and romance is very touching (I think).
This book is darker than Dissolution, I think, due to the gruesome case Shardlake is defending (I'm not ashamed to admit that this case quite upset me!) and due to Shardlake's own personal doubts. This is not a bad thing, and Jack Barak's introduction somehow lightens this 'darkness'.
All in all this book is another great read.
Dark Fire sees lawyer Matthew Shardlake pulled into national politics as he reluctantly undertakes a new mission for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIIIs Chief Minister. He must solve two murders: one threatens to claim the life of a young girl, the other is connected to Dark Fire a mysterious weapon which could wreak havoc in the wrong hands.
This book is the second in the Shardlake trilogy - the first being Dissolution. If youve not read Dissolution, you might be better reading it first. Although Dark Fire can be read as a standalone novel, its better to read them in order. Sansom does assume that you will already be familiar with his work. Dark Fire provides little in the way of character introduction and makes frequent references to the events in the first book without fully explaining them. Whilst this allows Dark Fire to start quickly (without the need for further character building), it might be a little confusing for newcomers.
If you have read the Dissolution , youll know pretty much what to expect: an intriguing thriller set in an interesting period of history. Once again, the accuracy of the novel is simply outstanding. Sansom has clearly spent a lot of time researching the period and building up a very clear picture of the key people and events of the period. However, Sansom goes further than this and pays close attention to small details too to the lives and conditions of ordinary people, not just the great and the good. As a result, his 1540s London feels incredibly real and he truly brings the bustling capital to life. Sansom has an excellent descriptive turn of phrase and when you read some of the passages, you can almost see, hear and smell the types of things he is describing. This makes the whole book seem extremely realistic and it drags you in, wanting to find out more.
Sansom also successfully weaves genuine historical events into the fabric of his novel. This is not just a gimmick to show how much research he has done, but has genuine relevance to the plot. Without wishing to give too much away, Sansom has the cheek to provide his own explanation for one of the most significant historical events of the 1540s and, although far-fetched, within the context of the book, it seems both perfectly natural and logical, without being clever-clever.
Perhaps less successful are the characters, which can be a little one dimensional. This was partly true of Dissolution, but is worse here. Characters are generally one of the following: nasty, wimpy, devious or greedy; yet few display more complex traits and at times, it can be a little tricky to remember exactly who is who. Even Shardlake, the central character, is one-dimensional. Would someone who has witnessed the sorts of things he has really still be so idealistic and retain notions of fairness and justice? Sometimes he seems so naïve and removed from reality that you want to shake him to wake him up. The best character is probably Jack Barak, easily the most realistic of the fictional characters. He speaks, acts and thinks exactly like you would expect someone in his position to. Its just a shame more of the characters arent as well developed!
Where Sansom really hits his stride is in weaving real historical characters into the novel. Again, these are not simple add-ons to prove historical accuracy, but are crucial to the story and the clever interweaving of real and fictional characters works well. Perhaps because there is more evidence detailing what they were like, these characters are far more rounded than the fictional ones. Cromwell, for example, comes across as both a nasty piece of work and a sympathetic character.
Although it makes a pretence at times to be complicated, the plot itself is actually quite straightforward and sees Shardlake trying to unearth the secret of Greek Fire whilst saving the life of a young girl accused of murdering her cousin. This is only partially successful, as the Greek Fire element dominates the book and overwhelms the murder sub-plot. At times it seems that this is only referred to occasionally when the author remembers about it, and it is wrapped up in indecent haste towards the end of the book. As with Dissolution, its not a particularly taxing plot and seasoned readers will have no trouble working out the circumstances of the murder well in advance of its resolution, which leaves you a little disappointed. The Greek Fire element is better, containing lots of red herrings and, even when you think youve got it worked out, there are still a few stings in the tail to surprise you.
Since it is broader in scope than the first novel, Dark Fire is, inevitably, longer coming in at almost 600 pages. Occasionally, the book does feel a little padded out, with repeated trips across London to talk to the same people. However, most of the time, it does feel natural: a new fact is discovered, which leads Shardlake to further question a previous witness in other words, exactly how you would expect an investigation to proceed. Certainly, there was no point at which I felt bored with the book, and there was never any question of me stopping reading it and moving on to something else. Even in its slower passages, this book grips you and is a fascinating read. For the most part, it is a gripping, if ultimately disposable, piece of entertainment. The book does, however, start to run out of steam a little towards the end and could have done with tying up all the loose ends about 50 pages earlier. Certainly, the epilogue is both unnecessary and mis-placed the events portrayed in it could easily have been saved as a natural beginning for the third book.
Dark Fire also suffers slightly from pacing issues. Shardlake is up against a deadline he has 10 days to solve both mysteries yet there is no sense of urgency in the book! The plot and the characters amble along as if they have all the time in the world. Although the deadline is constantly referred to, theres no sense of panic as it draws closer simply references to only 6 days left etc. The way the deadlines are established feels slightly artificial anyway, and the fact they are pretty much ignored suggests a plot device which the author has unsuccessfully introduced to try and add an element of tension.
Because of its slightly more fantastical plot line, one-dimensional characters, pacing issues and basic plot, Dark Fire isnt quite as entertaining as Dissolution. However, dont let that put you off. Its still a cracking read, which will have you turning the pages as fast as you can in order to find out how it all ends.
C J Sansom
Pan MacMillan, 2004
The paperback has an RRP of £6.99. However, a new copy can be bought from Amazon for £5.59, whilst second hand copies can be picked up from as little as £1.