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Heirs and Bastards
Sovereign - C. J. Sansom
Member Name: luckyarchers
Sovereign - C. J. Sansom
Date: 31/10/07, updated on 13/10/13 (422 review reads)
Advantages: Historically accurate mystery thriller.
Disadvantages: None for me, but there may be too much historic detail for some.
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)
Summary: Mystery thriller that gives a good feel of what it was like to live in Tudor times.