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Matthew Shardlake, fictional lawyer from the era of Henry VIII, has basically ruined my life.
Why? Becaues C J Sansom's accounts of his life are absolutely unputdownable. Since I chanced upon them they have eaten up hours of my life, but I have finally finished them. I've just completed the fifth novel, Heartstone - and it is without question just as good as the third and fourth books in the series, which I considered to be magnificent.
The presence of Henry VIII takes something of a step back in this book as his reign nears its end. Instead the royal presence is more that of his final wife, perhaps the original 'strong woman' as she is portrayed here.
Without wanting to give away the details of previous books, let's just say that Shardlake, despite not being in the King's favour, becomes an associate of the Queen after his efforts in the previous novel. We are now a couple of years down the line from that, and she summons him to ask him to undertake a case on behalf of someone who the Queen has affection for.
The case concerns a Wardship of two children which was bought by someone whose lands neighboured those which were the estate the children would ultimately inherit. Despite there being a lack of concrete evidence in a society where such tricks of Wardship were commonplace, Shardlake, with the Queen's support, forces the case past its initial court hearing and he finds himself and his counterpart lawyer Dyrick sent to Portsmouth to investigate further and question all those concerned.
But it is there that the French invasion is expected to land. Not far behind them on the road, the Royal procession launches, with the King due to inspect what is rumoured to be a woefully inadequate British defence. Shardlake needs to solve this case and quickly but he can find no real evidence to go on apart from a massively dysfunctional family - and even that's not illegal. But then, just as Shardlake resigns himself that he will have to tell the Queen and his client that he can find no case to answer, a massive development changes everything. As the truth finally unfurls, it forces Shardlake into incredible danger and up against an old enemy, as even he starts to question if he is following a case too far.
Yes! Course it is - it's Shardlake. But even relative to the rest of the five books currently in existence, it is very good indeed. Whereas Sovereign had that surreal, proper serial killer plot line, this was a return to more subtle ways.
Again it is well written and the characters are strong and mature in keeping with the timeline that the author sets out. Barak has more maturity than his early swaggering self, and his relationship with his formerly estranged wife is now his priority. Rather than being first to charge after a mystery, he is now desperate to escape a case that he sees as a nothing, and return to his wife as her second pregnancy develops. Indeed, he was only there as Shardlake sought to save him from being enlisted in a country where any suitable young man was being ordered to defend their land from the French.
The looming prospect of war, and a country under great strain, is well crafted by Sansom and this offers more tension to the background of the seemingly non-existent case of cruelty and exploitation of inheritance. The characters of the family in question are all done well in my opinion; whilst you don't have the time to familiarise yourself with them as you have the main recurring characters, it is immediately obvious that something is not right. Each of them has a different weird characteristic and almost all of them seem deeply unlikeable, but just being a bit of a nutter wasn't basis enough for any further investigation. Shardlake's opposing lawyer, Dyrick, is a crowing, argumentative arse but even he starts to show that he has an unusual amount of authority in the house, and over time all these unusual characters start to bounce off each other with more and more animosity and tension, so when the twist comes you can almost feel the thick atmosphere between them and yet you see that Shardlake has nowhere left to turn in trying to untangle the threads.
The climax of the book is hugely dramatic and certainly doesn't conclude too quickly; as the truth behind the case unfolded I realised that I still had a remarkable amount of pages to read. And with this huge conclusion playing out you then see the resulting character development both in and between Shardlake and Barak. Sansom's characters have a self-awareness and none of them are perfect, but their awareness of their flaws, however long it takes to come, is what makes them grow from book to book.
So yet again it's full marks and a massive recommendation. May Sansom pick up his pen again soon, because these books get better and better. Whilst my personal favourites perhaps were Dark Fire and Sovereign, this was a fantastic read in its own right and that preference is merely personal taste in story telling. Here's hoping we meet Shardlake again very soon.
C J Sansom
An almost no spoiler review. I do divulge something about one of the characters pertaining to an earlier book.
Heartstone is the fifth in the series of novels featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. All the books in the series are set in the 16th Century at the time of Henry VIII each book is a stand-alone story whilst following on from the previous books and bring the time and places to life.
Heartstone features the most complicated storyline to date and once again has the added interest for me of featuring places I know well. This time the tale is based largly in Hampshire as well as London. Shardlake is appointed by a servant of Henry's sixth wife Catherine Parr, to act on behalf of two young orphans who have been adopted by a landowner suspected of aiming to benefit greatly and make money from their ward-ship. There is evidence to suspect that he is abusing his powerful position.
Whilst taking on this case Shardlake is also looking into the history of a young lady that he believes is wrongly incarcerated in the notorious lunatic asylum the Bedlam. As usual his investigations lead to some dark secrets and murky pasts of some powerful people that prove to be dangerous. But just who is out to get Shardlake and why?
Once again our protagonist is drawn into the politics of the time, has to face his conscience and his desire to get to the bottom of the events played out before him. Shardlake is an idealist and must have the truth at whatever cost.
Although this novel has a complicated story line Sansom's easy to read writing style and the believable aspects of the tale immerses you in the time and once again a famous historical event is incorporated into the tale, this time an horrendous sea battle against the French off the coast of Portsmouth is featured and incorporates a slightly humorous moment or three? That reminds me of a clip from Pirates of the Caribbean!
Deaths, lies and danger as always lie at the heart of this page turning novel. Barak is once again featured and it is touching how the relationship between the two main characters is building and there is obvious mutual respect and admiration. The now married "Gofor" is realistically losing his bad boy image and becoming a softer character under the influence of the care of a good woman (my tongue was firmly in my cheek as I wrote that comment!).
Once again Sansom allows the reader to see some of the darker aspects of Shardlake's character which adds to the believability of the tale that unfolds. As I read this book I would often find myself wondering about it as I drove to work or tidied the garden, where did Sansom get his inspiration from? what made him decide on these two particular cases to run in tandem? Where did he start the novel? The last question I ask because sometimes I had the feeling that the end or near end was written first, leaving Sansom the task of building a story to reach that conclusion. Of course I could be wrong? However, I do like a book that keeps me interested even when I am not actually reading it. Heartstone certainly did that, as usual Sansom brought the Tudor times to life and you really felt like you were in the Hampshire village or approaching Portsmouth. The industries of the day are brought to life as well as the hardship of the lower classes and the arrogance of those higher up in the echelons of society.
Of course the real strength of this novel and indeed the whole Shardlake series the realistic characters and realistic portrayal of Tudor England. Shardlake begins the novel slowly and it peaks and ebbs in a satisfying way that leaves the reader in no doubt that Sansom is in charge here. There is a reason why he is such a popular historical fiction author. That is because he takes the story by the scruff of its neck and wrings everything out of it giving the reader a satisfying journey back in time where we can smell the woods and the roses and puzzle over the events on the page knowing that no stone is left unturned.
In conclusion, Tudor Britain was a fascinating time and there is so much material to draw from and Sansom with this series of books has drawn on most of it in order to create an interesting and fascinating trip into Tudor times in each novel. Sansom is well placed to write these novels as he has a PhD in history and is also a qualified solicitor, thus he has plenty of background to draw on.
Like the rest of the books in the series whilst Heartstone is a standalone novel, but there is definite benefit in reading these books in order to enjoy how Sansom builds the main characters.
Whether you prefer the historical genre of book or crime, mystery or even a good fictionalised legal story Heartstone is a fascinating story built around interesting characters.
Price & Availability:
From all good book sellers. Paperback £6.29 and Hardback £14.29 from Amazon at the time of writing.
I don't like hardback books...which says a lot for Heartstone, the latest in the Shardlake series of books by C.J. Sansom, which I went out to buy as soon as it was released, hardback or not. If you are new to the Shardlake series, here is a brief summary;
Matthew Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer, working his way through the ranks of the bar. He begins working for Thomas Cromwell before his demise. After having worked through several cases which would almost always become more complicated with murders and such, Shardlake is entrusted with a case by Queen Catherine Parr herself in Heartstone. He has had to overcome adversity, even a grilling from Henry VIII in York, and competition from other lawyers like Richard Rich.
Heartstone follows on from the fourth in the series, Revelation, and sees him not only working the case for the Queen but following a personal one too, to find out more about Bedlam inmate Ellen Fettiplace who he believes may have been wronged and may not even be 'mad'.
There are not many books which have captivated me as much as Heartstone. Sansom has a way with words. He will encapsulate you. You will find yourself helplessly empathising with your protagonist. You will be left until the very end wondering who the wrongdoer is. Once you pick up Heartstone and become embroiled in the story, you will not want to put it down.
I am an avid history fan, especially of this particular part of history. The words are so vivid that you will almost feel as if you are stood in Chancery Lane with Shardlake. This is my favourite of the series so far, not to take anything away from the rest of it.
If you, like me, like historical fiction or a murder mystery novel, this book is definitely one for you.
I am not going to go into the details of the book but give a review of the complete series to date of all 5 books.
The books in order are:-
Dissolution ISBN 1-4050-0542-4.
Dark Fire ISBN 1-4050-0544-0.
Sovereign ISBN 1-4050-0548-9.
Revelation ISBN 1-4050-9272-2.
Heartstone ISBN 1-4050-9273-4.
The series follows Matthew Shardlake, the books are all set in Henry the VIII rule. Shardlake is a lawyer who in the early books is working for Lord Cromwell on a number of secret tasks and always leads to murder, mystery and intrigue.
In later books, after the execution of Lord Cromwell, Matthew's palace contact became Archbishop Crammer.
In each of his books, Samsom keeps the villain revelation until the end, building up many possible characters as possible options. The stories are beautifully told, the detail of the scenes almost transport you back to Tudor times.
Whilst it's not obligatory to read them in order, there is a path through the books, which previous knowledge of the past is worthwhile.
I am personally a history lover and his books really do leave you wanting more. I take the opportunity to research history at the specific times of all the books I read and CJ Samsom has his research spot on.
If like me you like fictional history, please take time to read this series. My personal favorite is Dark Fire but each book is very good.
Heartstone is the fifth adventure featuring Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake, and whilst the Tudor period might have suffered from over-exposure recently with any number of historical "dramas" and documentaries, C J Sansom's creation shows that he, at least, still has plenty of life in him.
The latest book sees Shardlake becoming involved in a case at the request of Queen Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife. The case involves two young orphans, adopted by a landowner who hopes to make money from their wardship, but is accused of abusing his position. At the same time, Shardlake takes the opportunity to delve into the past of Ellen Fettiplace, last seen languishing in notorious lunatic asylum, the Bedlam. As ever, Shardlake soon uncovers some dark secrets that some very powerful people want to stay hidden.
This summary makes the plot sound rather more complicated than it actually is. As you read the book, all the various aspects come together wonderfully to form a strong, coherent tale. The plot progression feels very natural and proceeds along at a strong pace. Sansom weaves the various aspects together well, so that none are over-emphasised, or neglected, whilst there are plenty of strands common to both "mini mysteries". Sansom also builds in regular new developments or perils, as Shardlake uncovers more and more information, weaving a tale of intrigue that slowly becomes clearer the more you read. This means that, despite the book's considerable length (over 450 pages), you are hooked right from the start and want to find out more.
It might, therefore, sound a little strange to report that the two central mysteries are not actually that riveting. The case of a young, rather spoilt boy and an unsympathetic woman hold less immediate prospects of intrigue and appeal than previous entries in the series. Yet Sansom makes you interested through the way he carefully builds the plot, hiding the truth of each matter brilliantly, but giving you enough clues so that you can try and pit your wits against those of Shardlake.
True, sometimes Sansom relies a little too much on coincidence to drive the story forward or get his characters into the places or situations he needs them to be in. Recent entries in the series have sometimes tried a little too hard to tie the made up story in with major historical events and Heartstone is no exception (there's a particularly convoluted sub-plot which sees Shardlake at sea at a rather unfortunate moment). Still, it's a trick task to blend real and fictional events together and most of the time Sansom does it very well, so the odd mis-step can be forgiven.
In any case, the strength of the Shardlake series has never rested purely on its plots; its strengths have always been due to the characters and the vivid recreation of Tudor England, and here, once again, Sansom excels.
The central character is a hunchbacked lawyer who always sides with the underdog. Although trying to live a relatively quiet life, he is constantly drawn back into the murky world of politics; a world in which he has some powerful friends, but some equally powerful enemies. Shardlake represents the book's heart; a man with a conscience who genuinely wants to help people and always sees the best in them. At times, he can seem a little out-of-place in Tudor England, a highly unlikely, overly idealistic character living in a world where violence, manipulation and betrayal are commonplace. Shardlake, though, is an important character, reminding the reader that no matter how cruel the times, humanity is still important to some.
Shardlake's faithful assistant, Jack Barak also returns, although this time around I found him harder to like. Since he got married Barak seems a loft softer and has lost that hard, cynical edge which gave him his appeal. Previously Shardlake and Barak worked well together thanks to their differences - Barak was reckless, tough and trusted no-one; Shardlake thoughtful, intelligent and open. Marriage seems to have tamed Barak and this has altered the dynamics between the two main characters, leading to him losing some of his "bad boy" appeal.
Sansom's skill has always been mixing his fictional characters with genuine historical ones; and in many ways, it's this skilful weaving of fact and fiction that really catches the attention. Queen Catherine Parr, (briefly) Lady Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) and nasty manipulative Privy Councillor Sir Richard Rich are all brilliantly brought (back) to life. Sansom has clearly based his characterisation of them on what is known about them from historical documents, but rather than being dry recreations, they seem so real that you can easily believe that this is what these people were actually like.
Sansom also vividly recreates the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor England. Whether writing about the sprawling, disease-ridden city of London, the sniping, dangerous world of the King's Court, or looking at life in the provinces, Sansom really brings the period to life. As a former historian, Sansom clearly knows his stuff and crams huge amounts of detail onto every page. The political system of England is faithfully recreated as are all the various power factions that occupied the Court; the clinging to the "old ways" of (Catholic) religious practices are explored and, as with his characters, Sansom takes these elements and fuses them with his fictional tale, so that Heartstone feels like history come to life.
Of course, if you hated history at school or find it boring, then you might not be too fond of Heartstone. For some, the accurate historical recreations and relatively sedate pace of the plot may be a little boring, whilst some of the characters(particularly Shardlake) might appear a little too good to be true. There are also elements of the plot which are becoming slightly formulaic: Shardlake is offered an apparently simple case which gradually becomes more complex and the more he uncovers, the more it puts him in danger from dangerous men who are in important positions. Sooner or later, this formula is going to start wearing thin, although there's still more than enough in Heartstone to keep you entertained.
I do, however, think it's time to draw a line under the Shardlake's adventures in the rule of Henry VIII (indeed, this book is set towards the end of his time as monarch). On the strength of Heartstone, though, there's more than enough to get me excited at the prospect of how the hunchback lawyer fares in the politically turbulent reigns of Edward VI and Mary I.
C J Sansom
© Copyright SWSt 2010
Heartstone is the latest novel by CJ Sansom featuring the Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake.
CJ has a PhD in history and a background in journalism, he has written about the lawyer Shardlake in Dissolution, Dark, Fire, Sovereign, and Resolution all are set in the reign of Henry VIII and cover the more famous events in the kings reign.
Matthew is a lawyer; he has a crooked back and a generally benign nature. In a modern setting he would be firmly left wing and having a liberal outlook on life, he is a man with a belief in looking after those who cannot and likes putting right wrongs which have been perpetrated by the more wealthy characters in and around the king's court. This approach as well as a lifestyle which is beyond reproach has made him enemies and friends, he has a clerk called Barak who is a close friend and a doctor called Guy who is looking after Barak's pregnant wife Tamasin.
Heartstone is a book set in the last year of Henry VIII's life and begins with a simple visit to the famous asylum Bedlam. Matthew has begun to visit Bedlam regularly to meet a woman inmate called Ellen; this visitation has become a regular event after Matthew met the women a few months earlier in context with another case. Though there isn't any romance between the two her case raises his interest, she was placed in Bedlam 19 years earlier after some event in her past which robbed her of the ability to leave the building and go out into the outer world. Her place at Bedlam has also been paid for by an unnamed benefactor and her precise reason for being placed in the asylum appears vague as she has control of her wits. Matthew accepts her wishes to look into her internment but doesn't immediately think he can do anything.
Queen Catherine Parr asks Matthew to look into the case which has led to the suicide of the son of one of her cleaning women. The queen appears to accept from the boy's mother that he was of sound mind and his suicide was to do with a case he had lodged in the court of wards concerning his previous employment. He had worked as a tutor of a pair of children called Ellen and Hugh Courteys, their parents died of smallpox and their ward ship over their lands was bought by their neighbour a prosperous business man called Sir Nicholas Hobbey. Hobbey also has a son called David who is the same age as the children. Smallpox had raised its head again and Ellen had died 7 years earlier leaving Hugh and David, however, the impending court case had been raised with claims over monstrous wrongs.
That's the premise of the book, Matthew is sent towards Portsmouth where the Hobbey's live to look into the case. Ellen from Bedlam's village is also near Portsmouth so the trip will give him a chance to look into her past history and try and find out why she has been interned. Travelling to the Hobbey's are Matthew, Barak, Derryk (the Hobbey's lawyer) and Derryk's clerk. Along the way they meet a team of archers on the way to Portsmouth because there are rumours of a French invasion and a huge French fleet which is going to attack Portsmouth.
Henry VIII's disastrous invasion of France in 1541-1543 has come to roost with the unified French nation looking to invade England and remove Henry from the throne. Henry is now hugely fat, ulcerous and cantankerous he is on his final wife Catherine Parr. One of the final acts of the English-French war will take place on the waters of the Solent in 1545.
CJ Sansom sets up the novel with the intrigues of two cases, there appears the more standard case of the Courtleys wards and the more enigmatic and confused case of Ellen's placement into Bedlam years before. Matthew with Barak sets out to look into both cases and the reader suspects from an early stage that the two will either be connected or in some way be resolved at the same time. There are also a couple of smaller plotlines along with the main investigations, one is the fate of Barak's heavily pregnant wife Tamasin and the other the behaviour of Matthew's steward at home the oily Coldiron.
The story then develops into a travelling story, they travel to the Hobbey's with a company of archers giving plenty of scope for Matthew to show his humanity and giving side. He soon draws comfort from the behaviour of the noble commoners as archers and compares them with the wily and destructive behaviour of the lords and nobles of the land. A bit of social comment there perhaps? The team arrive at the Hobbey's and soon the intrigues and complexities in the case appear. The novel flows forward at a decent and satisfying pace and the reader forgets that this is a murder mystery until the murder and mystery part of the book hits the reader squarely between the eyes.
Matthew soon sets out to solve the murder and to resolve the strange comment made by the original claimant for the case and through it we are transported into Portsmouth and onto the ships awaiting the French. You know this book is going to involve ships because suspiciously the ship Mary Tudor is mentioned at a very early time in the novel. Indeed, the ship is important in the novel but how and why the reader should find out yourself.
Finally, the book wraps up the murder, the cases and why Ellen was interned all are satisfying in their believability and don't stretch credulity too far. The author's skills in history help the historical feel and the sense of being at this important time in English history comes through in the writing. Once again Samson raises himself above the standards of the other historical murder mystery writers and confirms for me that he is the leading author in the genre.