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Dissolution - C.J. Sansom

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Author: C. J. Sansom / Genre: Fiction

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      21.12.2013 17:45
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      Regardless, still an enjoyable situation mystery for anyone with historical tastes

      I'm always on the lookout for a new book. For me, during periods over which I am working, because of my commute I tend to get in late and have little time to unwind once I'm through the door of an evening - but I also need to unwind and clear my head of work contemplations before I have any chance of sleep. I find that my best way of doing this is to take a glass of wine, leave Mr Rarr to the TV, and spend the last half hour of my day getting lost in a good story. So, having a book-specific charity shop near where I work is a total win-win situation for me. Money going to a good cause, no waste of money on brand-new books, and more often than not, never having to wait a long time for a new book.

      This is how I came across the work of C. J. Sansom, whose Dissolution I am reviewing here. Having had a phase of reading historical fiction, the cover of Sansom's Revelation stood out, and the idea of a murder mystery novel set in the era of Henry VIII's time of political and religious unrest. What I didn't know, however, was that this was the fourth book in the series. I bought it, started it, and was quickly engrossed, so decided to halt with that book and start the series from the first book - I had noticed a copy of Dissolution on the same shelf. Luckily, it was still there.

      The series follows the experiences of a lawyer / detective by the name of Matthew Shardlake, in this initial book an individual in somewhat tenuous favour of Cromwell during the time of religious reformation. I'll leave it at that for now and elaborate more on the plot later, so if you want to avoid any potential spoilers (of course I'll keep them to a minimum but sometimes it is inevitable!) you can skip that bit later on.

      For now, a bit of info on the author...

      ***C J SANSOM***

      Born in 1952 in Scotland, Sansom reportedly studied at Birmingham University where his achievements included a PhD in History, so his subject matter and historical creation probably isn't a huge surprise. He ultimately practised as a Solicitor, so his character of Matthew Shardlake has plenty of draw upon; whether or not Sansom is also, like Shardlake, a hunchback with leanings towards religious reformation is not something that I can confirm one way or the other!

      The Shardlake series currently stands at five titles; Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone. Sansom's other works of note include Dominion, a completely different work which stirred some controversy and drew not unconsiderable criticism for a portrayal of a different outcome to World War II. This is perhaps an illustration of his motivation behind reportedly being strongly against the concept of Scottish Independence.

      Supposedly Sansom has suggested the Shardlake series will continue to take in the reign of Elizabeth I, with Wikipedia listing a suggested release of Lamentation in 2014.

      ***DISSOLUTION***

      As warned, this section may contain information that you would rather not know if you are thinking of reading this. Here goes.

      Shardlake is summoned by Cromwell as his campaign against the monasteries is at its height; one of his commissioners has been found brutally murdered on a task at a monastery on the South coast of England. Shardlake is sent, along with his assistant Mark Poer, subject of some recent disgrace at court, to uncover the murderer. But of course as the new commissioner, Shardlake not only faces the mystery of a violent killing and the realisation that his role might mean he is the murderer's next victim, but also the resistance of the monks who face the destruction of their way of life; a lifestyle which, to some, has been a way of hiding urges and temptations.

      Published first in 2003, Dissolution drew great praise from Sansom's fellow writers such as P D James and Colin Dexter. However, there are also reports that some critics found it quite different, with one using the words 'unrelenting' and 'plods along', suggesting also that Sansom's writing style is not as strong as some similar writers. The same review reportedly also noted that the characters in this Shardlake offering were largely unlikeable.

      Should you be interested in reading on, the book is still widely available and has been re-printed a few times; currently it is available on Amazon for a pretty standard paperback price above £6 new.

      ***MY THOUGHTS***

      Again, I can't really review this properly without some reflections on the events within the plot, so be aware that there are likely to be some degree of spoilers here. First of all whilst I enjoyed this book quite a lot, I can see where the criticism of unlikeable characters comes from; this is told with what I personally interpret rather as a gritty realism but which I admit does give the book the element of having little by way of protagonists which are easy to support or identify with. Whilst monks who have become so accustomed to their protected little sanctum that they think the odd confession wipes away the harrasment of serving girls are always going to inspire some degree of resentment, Sansom's attempt to use the era and its subsequent impact on his overall pace, tone and characterisation equally result in our hero being fairly difficult to warm to also. Likewise his assistant feels fairly flat and is clearly a deeply selfish individual.

      Shardlake himself seems to have just one notable characteristic and that his his humped back. The character references it but I don't really see what it adds to the story; there are references to it meaning that he understands the feelings of the monster, the outsider or the minority, but equally it is easy to forget during other parts of the prose. Beyond this I can't really latch on to anything notable about him; he is not overly sanctimonious nor massively strict, he seems human enough to be capable of forming romantic affections but equally doesn't come across as overly friendly. Is he particularly likeable? Not particularly. Is he significantly difficult to like? Nope. Is he hard to warm to? Yes, and whether this is going to improve with the series or whether it is the author's intention to try to tip the realism nod to his era and its society isn't quite yet clear.

      As for the monks, they are by and large thoroughly miserable as well as a motley crew, seemingly a group of borderline degenerates, almost all of whom seem to represent some significant failing of the human condition. Does their fate in the time of religious turmoil inspire much sympathy? Not from me, but then I don't really 'do' religion. So you might think that choosing to read this series at all is strange, but whilst I don't have religious leanings myself I can see that it is a strongly emotive subject and therefore should contribute strong drama to a murder mystery, which was what I wanted to read.

      All of this may sound like a negative review but it isn't; indeed I have recommended it to my mother who is also enjoying the read, and I have ordered the next two. I have a slight advantage in that I suspect the first hundred or so pages I initially read of the fourth book, Revelation, hinted that the character becomes easier to identify with and indeed like; whether this is intentional or just natural character development over time I'm not sure but the important thing is that it occurs.

      So overall whilst I suspect over time that this isn't going to be my favourite of the series itself, I can't say that I didn't enjoy the book; admittedly I was pretty sure I had figured out the protagonists of the ending but the plot still has a twist in it which should make for an original read for most. So whilst I do recommend this book if you are into your historical dramas and your old-fashioned crime novels, please don't expect dashing heroes or high-octane action, because you just ain't gonna get it. For the right type of reader it is a definite winner, but because of its setting, tone and religious topic throughout the series, it might not be for everyone.

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        11.12.2013 22:35
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        A convincing portrayal of an interesting and turbulant time of Britians past.

        BOOK:

        Dissolution

        C J Sansom

        Please note: I do not ever give away too much of a story, but try to wet the readers appetite for the book. If I am going to discuss a possible "spoiler" I alert the reader first. There are no spoilers in this review, if you read the book after my review, you may just think something like "oh yes that review said that!" But I have not given anything valuable to the plot away.

        I first read Dissolution by C J Sansom when a box of books was donated to the school library where I work. The librarian said that she did not want all of the books as they were not ideal for teenagers and would take up too much space being big hardbacks. I had a quick look and homed in on Dissolution as it was based largely in Rye on the East Sussex Coast, a place I knew well. It was also clearly a crime thriller, a genre I sometimes like to read. I chose this book and another from what I later discovered was a series, I would have taken the whole set as they are a very attractive set of books in hardback, but the librarian wanted to offer some to another member of staff for some reason and keep one for the library.

        The Book Review:

        Although a book aimed at the adult market, Dissolution starts as it means to go on, with an exciting start of a young man having ridden through the night to pass an urgent message to Shardlake, our protagonist the hunchback lawyer, who would sometimes undertake work for Lord Cromwell. Basically, Shardlake is sent to a monastery in Rye to investigate the unusual death of Cromwell's Commissioner Robin Singleton.

        The plot is thick with adventure, red herrings and discovery. Shardlake's character is honest to the reader, we see all his temperamental shortcomings laid bare on the page, he is clearly a very intelligent man, with a good eye for detail and description and the places and people leap of the page as they come to life, at times you can almost smell the 16th Century lives of the various characters featured. Sometimes as a reader you admire him, sometimes you may dislike him a little too, at heart though he is a good man. Although a work of fiction, Sansom is an historian and the descriptions and political happenings of the time are accurately brought to life on the page. That is a major selling point of the series, although they are fictionalised, major players of the time are accurately (as far as we know) fictionalised with feasible stories that are full of historical reference. Tudor Britain is brought to life as you turn the pages.

        Set mostly between London and Rye the tale begins in Surrey and includes Pevensey Castle when it was still in use. In the plot, one thing leads to another and more deaths follow the first. Shardlake's own life is endangered and it is touching how he describes his fondness for his old horse and gains our sympathy by describing the pain his crooked back gives him.

        Conclusion:

        This is the first of the series and a very well written book, with easy to follow prose that will suit all adult readers, even those for whom, English is not the first language will enjoy the page turning thrill of Tudor England brought to life.

        Many different types of reader will enjoy this book, if you have an interest in the Cinque Ports of South East England, Tudor London, Henry VIII, The Reformation or enjoy historically accurate fiction or crime thrillers, if not done so already I think you will enjoy reading this book.

        I gave this book away on World Book Night several years ago and was delighted to do so.

        Incidentally, it transpires the librarian kept the last book of the series and ended up buying the middle of the set in paperback due to the popularity of this book after I gifted a copy to the library. Just goes to show, never judge a book by it's cover!

        STARS: 5/5

        The Independent say: "Sansom is excellent on contemporary horrors. This is no herb-and-frocks version of Tudor England, but a remorseless portrait of a violent, partly lawless country... You can lose yourself in this world" (Independent).

        About the Author:

        "C.J. Sansom was educated at Birmingham University, where he took a BA and then a PhD in history. After working in a variety of jobs, he retrained as a solicitor and practiced in Sussex, until he became a full time writer. He lives in Sussex".

        Both the above quotes are from the fore pages of World Book Night version of Dissolution, 2003).

        Bare's no resemblance in style to Sansom's first novel "A Winter in Madrid".

        Price and Availability:

        £4.99 in paperback or from around £8.95 in big hardback version, from Amazon, Foyles and all good bookshops.

        I hope you enjoyed my review and found it useful?

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          12.12.2011 18:58

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          Highly recommended

          I have had this book on the shelf for some time - why, I am now wondering, did it take me so long to read? The basic plot is that a lawyer called Matthew Shardlake is sent by Thomas Cromwell to investigate a death in a monastry. Once Shardlake arrives he susepcts everybody but can find no evidence. Every time he gets close to someone who may be willing to help they die!

          Set against a backdrop of Henry V11 and his dissolution of the monastries this is 439 pages of intrigue and mystery. If work had not got in my way this is a book that I would have read cover to cover in one go. Shardlake's appearance challenges our personal views whilst his inner emotions draw you to him. The author, C.J. Sansom, uses descriptive writing to paint an intricate picture of monastry life in the depths of a harsh winter whilst the monks are a collective community which include the usual mix of characters.

          I found myself routing for some of the characters and then being dissapointed as their foibles emerged. This is a page turner, plot twisting novel and I cannot wait to start the next in this series.

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          19.10.2011 09:38
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          Excellent book, well worth reading.

          C J (Christopher John) Sansom is a historical fiction author. He was born in Edinburgh, a studied at Birmingham University where he took a BA, then a PHD in history. Several years later he retrained as a solicitor before becoming a full time writer. His Matthew Shardlake series so far consists of five books, Dissolution being the first published in 2003.

          The Matthew Shardlake series is set in the sixteenth Century, when Henry VIII is on the throne, just after the beheading of Anne Boleyn. Matthew is a hunchbacked lawyer making a profitable living in London, partly thanks to the patronage of Lord Thomas Cromwell due to his Reformist views.

          The first book in the series sees Shardlake travel to Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to investigate the murder of one of Lord Cromwell's commissioners, Robin Singleton. Singleton was sent there to investigate the monastery prior to the dissolution, when all the money, treasures and lands belonging to any monastic orders where taken by the king.

          The book starts off a little slow, and at first I wondered whether or not to continue. The fact that the hero of a book is a hunchback seemed quite strange at first, especially in a time when they were considered to be unlucky and could be shunned by society. Shardlake was bullied and taunted through his youth because of this, and was unable to take over his fathers farm, instead moving to London to train to be a lawyer. Shardlake is also not the most loveable character to start off with (perhaps understandably due to the bullying) - he comes across rude and obnoxious at times. I am glad I stuck with it though. As Shardlake develops relationships with other characters throughout the book, he becomes more likable. He meets characters in this book that will continue through with him and are mentioned in the later books, so it is well worth reading them in order to avoid confusion. It shows his changing relationship with Cromwell as he finds out more about his involvement in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, where his Reformist views are tested.

          I thought Dissolution was a great book! It is a real page turner that you can get completely lost in, and kept me guessing to the end! I was given this as part of the World Book Night and am so glad that I was. I enjoyed it so much I have gone on to read the rest of the series. Samson is a great story teller. He involves you completely with the characters, even if they are slow to warm too, and I really wanted to find out what happened. The book is rich and descriptive, and educational! I found it incredibly interesting reading about the dissolution of the monasteries, and felt incredibly sorry for the poor monks who did nothing but become too rich for the Kings liking. It shows the ruthlessness of people like Cromwell to ensure that they did not fall from the Kings favour, and the vulnerability of those left at his mercy.

          I would recommend to anyone, especially with an interest in the Tudor times as this paints a fascinating picture of the times - five stars from me!

          Also published on Ciao as MrsW2011.

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            30.09.2011 20:11
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            A promising start.

            I'm one of those people who try new things especially when it's a book and so I look out for reviewed books when I'm in my local library. It's a small one so I don't get to find many but was lucky to get a copy of Dissolution a week ago. Unfortuantely I've been busy for me and not liking to leave a book unread I waited until I could read it over two days. I also felt this gave me time to take in something new to me. I do like Historical fiction but was slightly put off this by The Cadfael books, as they seemed similar.

            On reading Dissolution I realized the story was set in a different time and it wasn't the monk making the investigating it was a much different figure indeed, one of Thomas Cromwell's team of commissioners and answerable to the king Henry V111. Initially I still wasn't sure I'd get into the book, the setting of the story was good, the premise was promising but the action seemed to take place in one setting alone, a bit claustrophobic for me. However I read on and enjoyed the read.

            In the year 1537 England can be a dangerous place to live with King Henry desperate for an heir to the throne and having upset the Roman Catholic church by divorcing and re-marrying several times, he has been excommunicated from the church and established himself as head of the English church, thereby bringing reform and the Protestant religion into being. This is fact and the reform and eventual dissolution of the monasteries happened between the years 1536- 1540.

            In Dissolution C.J.Sansom uses a character called Shardlake to be his much-maligned hero of the time. Deformed by a hunch back from childhood, his character has learnt to master his inner feelings and chosen the life of a lawyer, a man of reason in an unreasonable time. His master is Thomas Cromwell, a real historical figure and his completely fictional assistant Mark Poer, a young gentleman. Their task is twofold, to investigate the murder of the last commissioner sent to the monastery of Scarnsea and the persuasion of the abbot to voluntarily surrender the monastery to the crown, a practice brought into being because of the unpopularity in the North of sacking of smaller monasteries.

            On arriving at the snow-swept sea coast region around the monastery Shardlake sets about his investigation with some trepidation. Although loyal to reform his character is, at times, in sympathy with the monastic life, though being taunted by children when tutored has left him impatient and annoyed at the laxity and self-indulgent life of the monks. The author uses this duality to great effect when presenting the many different natures of each individual and so we learn the monk's names and their places in the drama being played out. Just in case the reader gets a bit mixed up (which I did at times), the frontispiece has a list of the main characters the list of Senior Obendentaries (officials) of the monastery.

            I found myself in sympathy with quite a few of the monks whose lives had been rudely shaken up, but also felt the need for reform so prevalent of the time. At best these places were for younger sons, people who didn't fit into everyday life and a sprinkling of proper devout men whose life was given to God. At worst they were dens of iniquities with the church having far too much property and too soft a life, while sodomy and gluttony were rife and others turned a blind eye to it.

            However, this isn't about my personal views, though the book does make you think, a good thing in my mind. It is a fairly good thriller with plenty of blood and gore after a slow start. Shardlake is likeable at times but pig-headed at others. There are some well-thought-out characters with the monks and the Moor, Brother Guy, turned Christian and the head of the infirmary was a special favourite of mine.

            The author brings in some love interest with Alice, a young woman working with Guy and with both Shardlake and Mark taking an interest in her. Then there is Brother Jerome, a political prisoner who spoke out against the crown and was racked along with another prisoner, a man whose only crime was to be in the wrong place when a scapegoat was needed. Only this man went to his death, Mark Smeaton was put on the rack and confessed to being a lover of Queen Ann Boleyn and was also put to the sword.

            Mainly though this is a thriller, a murder mystery set against a real history and set to introduce a new hero to the genre. Matthew Shardlake is an interesting character and I believe this is the first story of a series. I found myself warming to the theme as the book progressed, despite guessing the identity of the murderer early on. I did find the setting a bit too much as most of the action takes place in the monastery, but hopefully the next will be better. So a three and a half rounded up to four dooyoo stars, as I'm sure by the number of reviews and comments that Shardlake is a much-loved character.

            My book was from the library, I believe prices vary a great deal but I haven't seen this in a charity shop and I have many good ones where I live.

            Thanks for reading.

            ©Lisa Fuller 2011.

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              11.08.2011 15:25
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              RECOMMENDED!

              I loved this book, I was given a copy as part of the World Book Night and to be honest I wasn't expecting much, but boy was I wrong. This is the first book in a series of stories set during the reign of Henry VIII when the Church of England has recently been established and the Catholic Church is in trouble. The country is divided between those loyal to the King and those loyal to Rome and the Catholic Church.

              As part of the dissolution of the monasteries in England, Royal Comissioners have been sent to visit them. However, one has been murdered whilst visiting a monastery on the south coast. Enter a hunchback called Matthew Shardlake, who is summoned by Thomas Cromwell the vicar general to lead an inquiry into the murder.

              Shardlake and his apprentice head to the monastery and begin to uncover a whole series of crimes including treason, embezzlement, sexual misconduct and more murder.

              I found this book brilliantly good. It wasn't perfect as the ending left a little to be desired, but everything else was amazing and the ending wasn't bad, just not as good as the rest of the book. The book was really well researched and seemed to be historically accurate, so much so that you actually feel like you are in Tudor England. It really highlights the desparate situation that all of the monasteries and monks were in at the time, talk about a rock and a hard place. Not only that but everything else is so well described, the hardships of life, the weather, the buildings, the food, everything seems to come alive.

              I would say if you like a good murder mystery then give this one a go, I loved it!

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              19.07.2010 18:43

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              Sansom takes you on a murder mystery Tudor style.

              About to start a module in the Tudors I was reccomended not only dissolution but the entire series by Sansom from a friend. So I bought it at just £4 and within 30 pages I was hooked. From the outset Sansom engages you in a mystery that seems simple on the surface but as Shardlarke digs further the mystery deepens. As well as the storyline itself the book is incredibly Historically accurate and gives you a real insight into what was going on in England with the monastries during Henry's reign. The Historical aspects I found to be just as gripping as the story itself. Before I knew it I was nearing the end of the book, the use of several red herrings successfully meant that when the murderer was revealed I had truly not expected it, not did I expected what happened next... A must read for anyone interested in the Tudor era or even if you just like a classic murder mystery book, it had me hooked from the start.

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              26.10.2009 23:47
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              A historical mystery which is definitely worth a read

              I picked up a copy of Dissolution when staying at a relative's and suffering from a lack of reading material, being one for judging a book by the blurb on the back the basis of a murder mystery set in Tudor times intrigued me and I read on.

              It's 1537, Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and Thomas Cromwell has commenced the investigation of the monastries, with the intention of dissolving them. Cromwell's team of Commissioner's have been sent far and wide to interrogate the workings of the monastries and force them to surrender to closure. But in the Sussex coastal town of Scarnsea one commissioners investigations have taken a nasty turn and he has been found dead, decapitated in the monastry's kitchens. Matthew Shardlake - hunchback, lawyer, Reformist and loyal to Cromwell - is sent to investigate. Whilst trying to uncover the murderer Shardlake uncovers truths that he would rather not know. Will he find the murderer before the murderer finds him?

              This is the first book in the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, however I didn't realise this until I finished the book a read the author's biography, the characters seemed to have a developed backstory right from the start - the character development was subtle and quickly made you feel acquainted with the lead characters - Matthew Shardlake and Mark Poer. Although once the story moved from London to Scarnsea I found it a little difficult to follow the different monks - not helped I suppose by them all being called Brother something which you can't really blame the author for! The lead character of Shardlake is an interesting one, he is fairly well off, in a respected job, but his hunchback does not let him fulfil his potential and makes his contempories treat him differently from others with his standing. The issue of his hunchback is brought up from time to time however it does not affect his every decision.

              The scene setting was as vivid and easily achieved as the character development. I found it pretty easy to visulise where the story was taking place.

              I enjoy historical novels, although I can't say I'm hugely knowledgeable about the period but I didn't notice any glaring errors. It made the book more enjoyable to have real historical events and people intertwined, although loosely, throughout all the story. In the historiacal note the author only admits to changing the history of one real person - and minor character.

              The book was an easy read, ideal for those lazy minutes prior to sleeping when you don't want to tax your brain but engaing enough to make you want to reach the end. The chapters are not too long - ideal for those "I'll just finish those chapter" moments. I wouldn't say it was a gripping, unputdownable read but the story was interesting enough to keep me coming back to read more until I finished it - and it only took a long weekend to finish.

              I would definitely read one of these novels again, although not an edge of your seat gripping novel they are well written and move quickly enough to keep your attention. The RRP for the book is £7.99 but it can often be found for less than £4 in supermarkets - and at the at price its as cheap as a magazine and a more engaging, longer read.

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                03.09.2009 13:25
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                A good murder mystery with a bit of history thrown in

                I've just finished reading this book and have to say I found it to be a very enjoyable a read. First off I must say it's not usually my type of thing - crime/historical/murder mystery type things aren't and this book has elements of all of these. However, having read the last book of the series in desperation having run out of books on holiday last year and having it donated, I really enjoyed that one so thought I would give the rest of the series a go.

                The story introduces the character of Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer who finds himself in the favour of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's right hand man in 1537 when the book is set. After the murder of the king's comissioner Singleton at Scarnsea monastery where he has been sent to attempt to enforce its dissolution Shardlake is sent to investigate. The investigation becomes increasingly complex against the setting of the monastery as every monk and member of staff seem to have their own motive. As the body count rises Shardlake is drawn further into the complex web of monastery life and the corruptions of the time.

                So, that's a very breif summation of the plot. I really don't wish to give away the ending or the plot twists, but these are good and well written by Sansom. I've never been good at solving mysteries in books and this one was no exception - it kept me guessing right to the end.

                I normally avoid historical novels as their protrayal of their chosen time is often shaky and the facts inaccurate. I was dubious about reading this one having studied the dissolution, and also being Roman Catholic I find authors are often lazy about the religion. Sansom, however, brilliantly evoked the atmosphere of threat and malice surrounding the time of the refomation under Henry VIII, and I could find no faults to pick in his historical accuracy. It seems he has done his research well and produced a better novel for it.

                The characters are richly created with Shardlake being the most prominent and best drawn of the lot as a self-aware and passionate man with a shrewd manner who is far from perfect. Some of the monks' characters are also well done - Brother Edwig who hides is manic fanaticism under his love of order and balance and Gabriel who seems gentle and kind but who has been found to be breaking his vows is sypathetically done. The monks' names can become a little confusing as many are similar but there is a guide printed at the front of the book to help, along with a map of the monastery which helps you to make sense of Shardlake's exploration of the monastery.

                Conclusion

                Overall, I found this to be a satisfying read with a strong plot, good charcaters and a brilliantly evoked atmosphere. Sansom handles his subject well and produces a readable and enjoyable novel. It's no Booker prize winner as it is fairly unoriginal - but sometimes that's not what you want from a book if you are looking for an easy read.

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                19.07.2009 12:19
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                A good historical fiction book combined nicely with a murder mystery.

                I'd had this book for a while and kept putting off reading it as to be honest, it didn't sound too appealing to me, despite it's great reviews! However after having recently read The Other Boleyn Girl I was in the mood to read some more books set in the Tudor Times so I finally picked this up. I only wished I'd read it sooner!

                This is the first book of four in C.J. Sansom's popular 'Shardlake series.' The book is set in the late 1530's not long after the death of Queen Jane Seymour, and Thomas Cromwell is overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries in England. Cromwell calls upon hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate the death of a comissioner at Scarnsea Monastery, and also to obtain the monastery's surrender.

                What I like about this book is whilst it is historical fiction, Sansom has stuck to fact in most places whilst adding in the 'murder mystery' at Scarnsea. I understand when reading something from the Historical Fiction genre that it is just that, fiction, but it annoys me when books are so far away from true facts so it's nice to see Sansom has done some good research.

                Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Mark Poer set off to Scarnsea Monastery to investigate the murder of comissioner Singleton. At first it is slightly confusing as we meet the various monks involved in the main storyline and it can be hard to remember Brother so and so and just who is who. However C.J. Sansom cleverly leads Shardlake to see each of the Monks one by one and you learn about each of them in turn. You begin to guess at just who may be behind the murder, and along with Shardlake you raise suspicions and then dismiss them at each stage of the book, and it makes for an enjoyable read.

                The characters have depth to them and Shardlake often visits memories from his past and how he has had to put up with being a hunch back during his life. Shardlake himself was brought up in a Monastery and he often compares the modern day Scarnsea to the monastery of his youth and how the times have changed. He regards Thomas Cromwell highly and believes truly in the changes being made with Henry becoming Supreme Head of the Church. We also find out some back story to Mark Poer and discover just how he became Shardlake's assistant. I thought the character's were well thought out and they are well developed and unique.

                The description of the monastery and the local town is brilliant, and Shardlake also describes how he was present at the time of Anne Boleyn's execution and how the country is now in mourning over the death of Queen Jane not long after the birth of Prince Edward. The Abbott and Monks in Scarnsea Monastery are all fearful of the threat of the monastery being closed down and destroyed, and the Abbott constantly thinking of whether to surrender and collection the pension promised by King Henry. Sansom captures this point in history and helps us to understand just how the state of the monasteries were as they were being forced to surrender.

                I did not guess the outcome of the book at all and the last section of the book as it all came together was a great read. The book flowed along nicely with never a dull moment and it made for a good page turner. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Dark Fire, and have already ordered it!

                Dissolution is available from Amazon for £3.99 and I highly recommend it to fans of the crime fiction genre, nicely combined with historical fiction!

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                  17.03.2009 15:57
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                  A decent page-turner made a little bit special by the protagonist as a troubled man of his time

                  Dissolution is a murder-mystery set during Henry VIII's reign at the time when the king was in the early-middle stages of getting rid of the monasteries in England. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake is the man of Cromwell, the king's right hand man and Protestant hard-liner. He is sent to investigate the murder of a previous commissioner at a Kent monastery. In the story that follows, the original crime becomes entangled with individual monks' dark secrets, previous deaths and further murders, and the seething political struggle over the future of the monasteries.

                  If it sounds like a bit of a pot-boiler, well in a way it is. I bought it as a holiday book and it was a right rollicking read! If it sounds a bit Name of the Rose-y, well I can see that too. Though I don't think it's as good (though it's a long time since I've read that one so hard to compare). On the downside, the plot does get more ridiculous as you go along, and if you can't see the identify of the killer coming well in advance, you really haven't been paying attention.

                  On the plus side, you really do get a feel for the times and the political and social environment of 16th century England. This is achieved through the excellent characterisation of Shardlake, who is 1st person narrator. His growing disillusion with the regime he serves is well-depicted. While he is a generally sympathetic character, he has his difficult moments that make him into a real individual. And while we relate to him and his motives, we are frequently reminded that he is from a very different time to our own - some human characteristics may be timeless but in many ways he is very different to us. It is this that will stick with me from this book, rather than the plot twists!

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                  06.02.2009 23:16
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                  A great piece of historical fiction

                  Dissolution is the first novel in a series of book written by C.J Sansom and telling the somewhat adventures of Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of the reform.

                  All of the novels in the series are set during the reign of Henry VIII and are pieces of historical fiction. This novel deals with the issue of how now the King has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church new laws are wakening the country and the greatest network of informers ever seen is rearing it's head. Lord Thomas Cromwell is sending reams of commissioners to investigate the catholic monasteries to which he believes there to be only one solution - dissolution.

                  Robin Singleton is the commissioner sent to the monastery of Scarnsea but events their have somewhat spiralled out of control and he is horrifically murdered - his head separated from his body in one swift blow. It is at this point that this story begins and Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Mark Poer are sent to uncover the truth and shed light on the dark happenings at Scarnsea.

                  In my opinion this novel is truly fantastic from start to finish. From the moment you begin reading you are immediately transported back to the time-period in question and are constantly pulled into the unfolding action in such a way that everything seems unmistakably real. Sansom has a wonderful way of drip-feeding the read just enough information as and when it is needed thereby keeping you in suspense for the novels duration.

                  Furthermore the novel contains amazing historical detail to keep those with a keen mind awake but this is so cleverly entwined with pure fiction that at times you simply believe that everything you read is true. For me this is something that really makes Sansom a great author, as his ability to link together real historical event, fictionalised characters and fictionalised events without the reader being certain where the truth line really is, is something that I admire.

                  The characters in this novel are themselves exceptionally well developed. They are unique and interesting and the characterisation given to them by Sansom ensures that they themselves remain slightly mysterious and always intriguing. Shardlake as a character is not your typical lawyer, turned spy and it is this that really makes him endearing to me. He is in so many ways quintessentially Tudor yet in many others embodies ideals that the modern-day reader can associate with.

                  The final thing that makes me like this book so much is the fact that the Tudor period and historical events aren't simply a backdrop to the murder story contained within. The period and the problems that the changes in the period have caused and are causing is as much a part of the novel as a whole, as the murder and subsequent case are. Again this is something that really draws me to the tale as there is nothing more irritating than picking up a piece of historical fiction only to find that the historical context is merely a setting for the novel rather than an integral part of it.

                  As a novel the book itself is 439 pages long and is then followed by 3 pages of historical notes and a chapter from the next book in the series, Dark Fire. The story is split into sizeable chapters, which is always something that attracts me to a series of books as I cannot stand exceptionally long chapters or no chapters at all.

                  Dissolution has an RRP of £7.99 but can be bought online for a little bit less if you look around. Personally however I think that this thrilling murder mystery with it's strong historical feel is well worth it's RRP and is therefore a book I would with no doubts at all strongly recommend.

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                    14.01.2009 13:14
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                    A really good historical murder mystery

                    Historical fiction can be incredibly hit and miss. One stupid mistake or some modern lingo slipped in will mean that I lose interest - if an author cannot be bothered to research a subject, then why should I bother finishing his/her book? I'm not a history expert, just someone with an interest in a few historical periods, but even I can tell when something jars. However, when properly researched and well written, based in an interesting period of history with colourful characters, historical fiction is one of my favourite things. A good book can make you feel like you've travelled back in time and are there, with the characters, living the words on the page.

                    I was given this book as a Christmas present by someone who knows my love of history. I had never heard of C J Sansom or this series, so I am really glad they thought of me when they saw this.

                    The main character, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer in the reign of Henry VIII. The book is set just after the divorce and execution of Anne Boleyn, and the break away from Rome. The author has obviously gone to a tremendous amount of trouble researching the legal system in this time but the information is presented in an interesting way and you certainly don't feel like you're being given a lecture on this subject. The plot centres around Shardlake, an advocate of religious reform, and his assistant, Mark Poer, being sent to investigate the murder of a king's commissioner in a monastery earmarked for dissolution.

                    The book is part murder mystery, a genre I don't usually read. It really worked here, though, and to begin with it felt like I was trying to solve the mystery along with Shardlake, picking up on 'clues' and scrutinising everything each character said and did. However, half way through this book I guessed who the murderer was so although the murder mystery plot is fun for keeping those pages turning, it wasn't that difficult to work out. This didn't detract from my enjoyment, however, and gave me a nice smug feeling when the characters finally caught up with me!

                    What usually makes a book work for me is the characters, and here Sansom certainly didn't disappoint with Shardlake. I liked him immediately - he wasn't dashing, debonair or handsome, but he seemed good without being saccharine. He had his flaws, like a tendency to priggishness, and his high-handedness towards his assistant sometimes annoyed me, but that there would be my 21st century viewpoint, as I would imagine that for the time he was an unusually lenient master.

                    All in all I thought the book was excellent - it struck that nice balance between readability and credibility. I will definitely be reading the others and would recommend them to both fans of historical fiction and murder mysteries.

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                      07.03.2007 18:13
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                      A good start to what promises to be an interesting trilogy

                      In the late 1530s, Thomas Cromwell is overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries in England. As part of this task, lawyer Matthew Shardlarke is despatched to Scarnsea Monastery to oversee its surrender, but quickly becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue and murder.

                      As a historian, I don’t normally read historical novels. This is because they can sometimes get “facts” so spectacularly wrong that I find it incredibly irritating – to the point where I no longer care about the story. I was particularly wary of this book, as it concentrates on England in the 1530s – my specialist subject at university and so a period I know a fair bit about. However, I was assured that it was very good and convinced I should read it. I’m glad I did!

                      Right from the start, it is clear that author Sansom has done an incredible amount of research on the period – not just the big events surrounding the dissolution, but around plenty of other issues too – what life would have been like in London, how ordinary people lived etc.. He creates a completely believable and realistic atmosphere, in which it is very easy to become immersed.

                      Better still, his writing style complements this very knowledgeable approach. He wonderfully evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Early Modern England to the point where you can build convincing pictures in your mind. He even differentiates between different environments, so the picture he draws of life in London is completely different from that of life at the monastery; and this, in itself, is very different to life in the small provincial town in which the monastery is located.

                      Don’t run away with the idea, though that the emphasis is on facts, figures and dates. This is a leisure book – not a text books and it’s always enjoyable and never a chore to read. True, you’ll probably get a little bit more out of it if you are familiar with the key events and characters of the period, but this isn’t essential. It certainly never feels like you’re being given a history lecture (although on some levels you are!). Facts and ideas are carefully and skilfully inserted into the plot. They are usually interesting and relevant and not simply there for the author to show you how clever he is.

                      The plot itself is certainly nothing new – it’s basically a murder-mystery, with all the twists and turns you would expect. Unlike some thrillers, however, these twists and turns never seem contrived or inserted purely to give the reader something else to think about. Events are always logical and consistent with what we have already witnessed. It also has that element so crucial in murder-mystery novels: you are not just reading a story, you feel like you are investigating it along with Shardlake, trying to solve the mystery ahead of him. In fact, that’s not too challenging – seasoned readers will have worked out at least half of the solution well before the end. Even so, that doesn’t make the book any less interesting and you’ll find yourself racing through it to find out if you’re right and exactly who is guilty of what.

                      The interesting plot is helped along by strong and believable characters. Shardlake is particularly strong. You get the impression that Sansom has mapped out his whole life, so that he knows exactly where he has come from and what makes him tick. This creates a rounded character who behaves and reacts in a realistic way. In particular, the relationship with Shardlake and his companion Mark is very strong. The arc of that relationship shows how being forced to spend too much time cooped up together in each other’s company can breed resentment, and how the introduction of a third person can damage the relationship or show the cracks.

                      The characters of the monks are not quite so well-fleshed out, but still believable. For the most part, there are no cardboard cut-outs or lazy stereotypes. Each monk has his own ideals and motives. Having said that, it can sometimes be a little difficult to remember which monk is which, as they occasionally merge into one. Generally, however, the characters are well-realised and their behaviour never seems outlandish or out of character.

                      If you were going to level a criticism against the book, you could point to the fact that it’s not startlingly original (The Name of the Rose was also a murder mystery set in a monastery). As already mentioned, it’s also not particularly difficult to work out what is going on, so if you’re looking for a challenging murder-mystery which will test your wits, you need to look elsewhere.

                      You might also accuse the book of having slight delusions of grandeur – at times, it seems to think it is a great work of literature, rather than a light, disposable novel. The most obvious example of this is the inclusion of a completely unnecessary map of the monastery (again, echoing The Name of the Rose) and a list of key characters (although this may be to address the problem that it is sometimes easy to forget which monk is which.) However, it’s testament to the strength of the book that none of these things really dampen your enjoyment of it.

                      Conclusion
                      ---------------
                      A hugely enjoyable book – a real page turner that will make you want to keep reading until you’ve finished. Not the most complex plot in the world, but Sansom’s excellent historical research makes the book fascinating, realistic and entertaining. A far superior read than bigger selling books like The Da Vinci Code.

                      Basic Information
                      ----------------------
                      Dissolution
                      C. J. Sansom
                      320 pages
                      Pan; New Ed edition (31 Aug 2004)
                      0330411969

                      Availability
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                      The paperback can be bought new from Amazon for £3.99, whilst a second hand copy will cost about £1.

                      Note: this is the first novel in a trilogy featuring Matthew Shardlake. The other two are Dark Fire and Sovereign. I'll try and review these once I've read them!

                      © Copyright SWSt 2007

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                    • Product Details

                      Henry VIII has ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and England is full of informers. At the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control with the murder of Commissioner Robin Singleton. Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, and his assistant are sent to investigate.