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Sovereign by C J Sansom
No spoiler review - I aim to entice you to read the novel, not explain it so explicitly that you don't have to or the surprises are not surprises.
Sovereign is the third book in the series about hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake by C J Sansom. 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. This time in Sovereign the plot is built around York and London and the parts of Britain in between.
In the autumn of 1541 King Henry is setting out on this famous Progress to the north in order to attend an extravagant finale in York. Shardlake and his assistant Barak are part of the Progress, as petitioners for the King, however, although they are linked to the Progress they are on the edge being contracted to carry out legal work for the King they are amongst the army and others that go on ahead. Whilst on the tour Shardlake is also asked to ensure the welfare of a dangerous conspirator held prisoner and who is being escorted to London in order to be interrogated at the Tower. Shardlake has to reluctantly agree to undertake this dangerous mission.
There are murders and humiliation for Shardlake to content with as well as the perilous journey. Shardlake and Barak must get to the bottom of the murders and the story of the discovered mystery box found whilst investigating a murder. Shardlake's own life and welfare are in danger and as soon as you suspect someone you realise it could be another character. This thread leaves you curious and guessing and of course turning the page.
As always Sansom brings Shardlake's world to life, as a lawyer and one that is often called on by the King's people Shardlake is well placed to allow us to view life it would have been. As a lover of historical novels, I really rate the series by Sansom, there is enough obvious historical accuracy to lend realism to the tales whilst the well rounded characters show us life as must have been for all classes of society at that time. However, the well written easy to follow prose and mystery and suspense will draw you in even if you are not usually a reader of historical fiction.
There is no doubt that the book is well researched and that Sansom knows his subject, the bibliography at the end substantiate the obvious research carried out. Tudor Britain was a fascinating time and there is so much material to draw from. Our protagonist Matthew Shardlake is a likeable intelligent character who is lovely to spend time with, don't be under any illusion though, Sansom is not afraid to show us the darker side of Shardlake and we discover his moods through his often fascinating observations and thoughts.
The backdrop of the Progress adds a fascinating extra side to the novel and it made me smile that a North/South divide was referred to and was problematic. I think these day's it no longer exists, but as recent as the 1980's the imaginary dividing line was still alive and kicking. The observations of the resentment of the King and his Court add interesting realism to the novel and Shardlake mixes with all sorts of different people so their different viewpoints are explored.
Sansom is well placed to write these novels as he has a PhD in history and is a qualified solicitor.
Who do I think will enjoy the book?
Obviously, if you have an interest in historical fiction you will love this book; however it will also appeal to fans of mystery and crime novels.
I really enjoyed this series and would highly recommend reading all the books and there is benefit in reading them in order as the characters do build throughout the novels. Although they do stand alone well.
An excellent way to bring some famous times from history into perspective, these novels would make excellent wider reading for students of history, obviously especially if they are covering or specialising in sixteenth century Britain.
Price and Availability:
My copy was a beautiful hardback version with maps inside the covers. Also available in paperback from Amazon at £5.59 and for £4.29 on Kindle at the time of writing.
Stars 5/5 a fabulous book of its genre.
This is the third Matthew Shardlake book by C.J. Sansom. Matthew Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer from Lincoln's Inn in London and he lives through the reign of King Henry VIII. Shardlake seems to end up having to solve various mysteries that are vital to the throne. What is good about this series of books is the historical detail, Sansom has done a lot of research into the various historical characters and really makes you feel like you're reading a bit of history rather than a novel. The author also always puts a historical note at the end of the book, so you can find out what was fact, fiction or rumour.
This story sees Shardlake in York (my home town) in the autumn of 1541 where a plot against the throne has been uncovered. To counter this and win the hearts and minds of the locals (or just to prevent a revolt) Henry VIII, his wife Catherine Howard, over a thousand soldiers and the cream of the court and aristocracy head on a great progress from London to York. Shardlake gets embroiled trying to uncover the cause of a series of murders and even has a few threats on his own life.
A fabulous romp through the damp and miserable city of York, that kept me engaged and up reading into the wee small hours of the morning. I really like this series of books that Sansom has created and I would recommend them to everyone, including this third offering, a great read!
This is the third book in a series named the 'Matthew Shardlake Mysteries' by C. J. Sansom. There are 4 books in this popular series which is set in Tudor England and follows lawyer Shardlake, who is often tormented as he is a hunchback.
C. J. Sansom has a PhD in history and is also a qualified solicitor, so these books involving a lawyer in the 16th Century were obviously a good choice for him!
I would recommend reading the books in order. I enjoyed the first book, Dissolution, and the 2nd book, Dark Fire, was an excellent read. I was wondering if C. J. Sansom could follow on with this 3rd book, hoping it would prove to have just an addictive read as the previous books.
** The Plot **
Its autumn, 1541 and King Henry VIII is setting out on this spectacular Progress to the North to attend an extravagant submission by his rebellious subjects in York. Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak are already in York, busy with legal work processing local petitions to the King. Shardlake has also undertaken another mission, rather reluctantly, to ensure the welfare of an important but dangerous conspirator who is being returned to London to be interrogated in the Tower. Shardlake isn't told much more than this, but he doesn't particularly want to know much more, as he's tired of being involved in politics which we read about in the previous books.
However a glazier who is busy taking the glass out of St Mary's Abbey is suddenly murdered and Shardlake is thrust into deeper mysteries, leading him to things he would probably rather not be involved in, as connections with the Royal Family itself suddenly come to light. He then stumbles across a box of very secret documents which could threaten the Tudor throne if they come to list, and so a chain of events unfold meaning that Shardlake is fearing for his life.
** My Opinion **
If you don't know much about Tudor times, or have no interest in history what so ever, then you will certainly know a bit more by the end of this book. Sansom actually adds a few pages at the end of the book stating his sources and the bits which he made up. I'm interested in the Tudor times and combined with the fact that is book is a brilliant murder mystery kept me reading for days. It's such a compulsive read that I never wanted to put the book down, but as it's a large read this meant I had to really prise myself away from it at times!
In the previous two books Shardlake never really becomes too close to being involved with the Royal Family however in this book he actually ends up meeting the King, and Sansom has done an excellent job of describing Henry as the fat and horrible looking man he truly was in his later years, combined with his rotten and stinking leg.
It's clear to see just how much research Sansom has done as this book goes into great detail at points, leaving you pondering over the Royal family tree and trying to make sense of everything at the same time Shardlake is. As in the previous two books I found Shardlake an enjoyable character to read about and I never tire of his thoughts.
There's quite a bit of history to this book as it dwells on the rebellion which happened in the North against King Henry, and how he deceived them by going back on his promises and executing key players in the network of conspirators. It also goes into detail about previous Kings; however I did find all this very interesting and easy to read. I love reading about the Progress to the North and Sansom admits he did a lot of research into it, however for some parts he had to imagine how it felt to be part of this huge Progress. In York people were forced to put sands out into the streets to make the Kings passage easier, but it's clear there was still resentment towards the King as people refused to do this, and so Sansom throughout the book shows the common people not always being pleased about the Kings presence. There is also the hate the Northern people have of the 'South'rens' which also plays vice versa as the Southern people believe Northerners to be barbarians!
Behind all of this Shardlake is in fear of this life as several attempts are made to kill him. I didn't have a clue who could be behind it, and the book makes you guess at several people, only to turn out not to be the killer truly behind it. The book comes wonderfully together at the end, and just as you think it's all over there's another shock in store in the next chapter.
I've really enjoyed this series and I can truly say that Sovereign is my most favourite book of the series so far. I enjoyed the previous two and I was hoping the 3rd would be just as good but it really exceeded all expectations! It was such a compulsive read and there is never a boring moment in this book, events move along quickly and you just can't stop reading. If you haven't started reading this series yet then you need to read Dissolution now, you won't be disappointed.
Sovereign in short is an utterly fantastic, totally thrilling and consistenly compelling novel. From the moment I picked it up I simply couldn't put it down and I ended up devouring it from cover to cover in a weekend.
It is the third novel in a series of book written by C.J Sansom that tell the somewhat adventures of Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of the reform by entwining hard-hitting historical fact with a gripping tale of murder, mystery and heresy.
All of the novels in the series are set during the reign of Henry VIII and are pieces of historical fiction. This novel is set in the Autumn of 1541 and Henry VIII has set out on a magnificent progress to the North to attend the submission of his rebellious subjects in York. Matthew Shardlake a lawyer from London and his assistance Jack Barak have been requested to travel with the progress to process the local petitions for the King. They are also tasked however to undertake a special mission, to ensure the welfare of an important but dangerous conspirator who must be returned to London for interrogation.
But whilst they are in York a Glazier is murdered, and this murder plunges Shardlake into deeper mysterious that are not only connected to the prisoner he was tasked to take care of but also to the Royal family itself. Matters are made worse when he stumble across a cache of secret documents, which if released could threaten the Tudor claim to the throne. Due to this discovery a chain of events unfolds that lead Shardlake and Barak to one of the most terrifying fates of the age...
What impressed me most about this book was how realistic everythign about it seems. C.J Sansom has clear done his homework with this book as the historical context is so right on the mark that you find yourself questing whether what he rights really occured or not.
On top of the fantastic historical aspects of the book the fictional characters are also superbly written and really give the book another dimension to it. Shardlake is a rather strange lead character in mnay respects. He is a hunchback yet has done exceptionally well for himself in a time when deformaty was seen as repulsive in every way. His character along with that of Barak are well developed and because of tehir development more believable and consequently more able to carry a difficult and intriguing plotline.
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. It's RRP is £7.99 but it can be bought online for a little bit less if you look around.
Personally however this book is definitely one of the best I have read in an awfully long time and is one that I would definitely recommend whatever the price you pick it up for.
*** The Author ***
There have so far been 3 books by C J Sansom in this series about a Tudor lawyer. They are called Dissolution, Dark Fire and now Sovereign is the third published.
A fourth book Revelation is due to be published in April 2008.
The author has a PhD in history, as well as being a qualified solicitor. His combination of interests in both history and the law make the subject matter of this novel a good choice for him.
He has also written the stand-alone novel Winter in Madrid, set in the Spain of 1940.
*** Background to Plot ***
I bought the Sovereign paperback without realising that it was the third book in a series, but found that it wasn't necessary for me to have read the earlier books to enjoy it. I did previously know quite a bit about this period of history though, and I think that helped me appreciate it. For readers with very little knowledge of the history of Tudor times, it is possibly more important to read them in order.
There are no plot spoilers in this review, but I will give you some of the historical factual background to help set the scene.
For readers who like to know how much is fact and how much historical fiction, there are 9 pages at the end of the paperback saying where the author got his information from, as well as advising which bits he made up. To me it is important that authors make this clear, which this one did well.
I will just give you a clue as to why I headed my review "Heirs and Bastards". It matters a great deal to many of the main characters whether they were born inside or outside of wedlock. The real life historical character of Blaybourne is involved. Readers who don't know the significance of the name Blaybourne, should find that part of the mystery even more interesting.
The main character is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, practising at the time of Henry VIII. Surprisingly, especially for this time in history, or some may say at any time in history, this lawyer wants to dedicate himself to providing fair justice, seemingly whatever the cost to himself. His inflexible honesty creates many enemies from those who are determined to break the rules for their own ends. With so many enemies I was soon left wondering how long he could survive at a time when life appeared so cheap.
At the beginning of this third book in 1541, the King is on to his fifth wife Catherine Howard.
After a failed rebellion in the north of England, called the Pilgrimage of Grace, the King and Queen go on a Progress to York, where they expect the northern leaders to humble themselves before them and promise their future loyalty. This would involve many ceremonies and entertainments.
This is how the main character described the politics of this Progress. "It struck me, this whole Progress is like a great chessboard, with a real king and queen trying to outmanoeuvre the people of the north." This is because despite the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace Rebellion and the show the leaders in York put on to demonstrate their loyalty to the King, there was a fear that the feelings of animosity that still persisted in most of the ordinary northerners would fuel another uprising. The discontent is a result of the religious upheaval going on having financial consequences as well as spiritual ones. This illustrates the strong north/south divide, as a lot of traditionally northern wealth goes south.
Therefore, there was continued extreme vigilance about the King's safety, from both the obvious army that went with the Progress and the spy network.
On this type of journey, an enormous retinue accompanied them, with all the necessities and luxuries necessary to a good court life. This included lords and ladies, soldiers with their arms, tradesmen, servants, tents, furniture, wall hangings, food (including live meat), hunting dogs and animals for baiting, as well as horses, carriages and carts to help transport them all.
One of the hardest problems for the organisers of the Progress to deal with was the "waste" such a large retinue produced. The three thousand people and five thousand horses produced more "manure" than the local farmers could make use of, and vast pits needed to be dug.
While the King was in York the local citizens were prevented from casting their sewage into the streets or river as usual, for fear it would offend him. Instead it piled up in their backyards. This appropriate comment was made. "It was symbolic of the King's visit: all glitter and show in front, a pile of turds behind."
The rich, as well as poor, needed a strong resistance to disease living in such unhygienic conditions. It is little wonder that the King had a persistent "stinking" inflamed leg.
Another of the graphic descriptions that stuck in my mind was the women working in and around a castle moat. Some of them were collecting reeds to make rushlights, while others were collecting leeches for the apothecaries. To catch the leeches they stood in deep mud and waited for them to bite, before pulling them off their legs. One of the main characters comments that, "Their legs must be covered in scars . . . as the body of England is covered in scars left by the great leech of Rome."
Another comment on religion that I found ironic is, "God's will is torture and bloodshed? Does it (the bible) not say that the meek shall inherit the earth?" To which the reply from a sadistic gaoler is, "Only when the strong have made it safe."
Organised entertainment was often gruesome too. A bear used for baiting is one of the animals included in another aspect of the storyline as well.
I felt relieved when I went with the plot from the town to the countryside, even though these royal travellers didn't need to spend much time in one camp to spoil that site. Once the most prestigious permanent accommodation was taken up by the most high-ranking of the travellers, the rest would have to rely on the tents for shelter.
Readers also get to experience different types of travel, as most of the Progress get back to London using horse power, while others try an option that they think will be faster, boarding a ship at Hull. (I did briefly think I must have got lost, as the sea here was then known as the German Ocean.)
*** Writing Style ***
Despite the many strands to the plot, I found it easy to follow. Some of the things that keep the reader guessing are why are the contents of a stolen casket of so much importance to the authorities, who is trying to kill a main character and why, and will they succeed? The closer the assassin(s) gets to success the more the tension mounts, as the hunted tries to track down the anonymous hunter(s).
My best guesses as to the motives of two of the main characters were proven wrong by the end, so the mystery part of the plot, together with the historical atmosphere, held my attention until the finish.
This book ends as though it is the last of a trilogy, but I see that the publisher is intending to issue the next book Revelation in April 2008.
The stubborn pursuit of justice of the main character, Shardlake, reminded me of the 20th century advocate Rumpole that the author John Mortimer created. Shardlake, living in much tougher times, hasn't Rumpole's sense of humour though. Instead, with Shardlake's own life at persistent risk, the sense of tension is a lot more heightened.
By the finish, after I had seen how they reacted to a variety of situations, I had strong reasons for whether or not I liked all the main characters, which I believe is a good test to show that they were all well developed.
Also, after the storyline has weaved its way around the Tudor Court in city and rural living, and from back-street brothels to the Tower of London Dungeons, and then the luxury of Royal Palaces, I believe the reader gets a authentic taste of life during these times.
I appreciated being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells (often stench) of the times and thought the author captured the atmosphere well. Some readers may prefer a more concise read though. Not all the historic details were essential to the plot, but they added to the appeal of the book for me.
*** Recommendation ***
I highly recommend this historically accurate mystery thriller to those who want to get a good feel of what it was like to live in Tudor times.
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Pan Books; New Ed edition (16 Mar 2007)