“ Author: C. J. Sansom / Genre: Fiction „
Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will probably have observed that I have recently become a fan of C. J. Sansom's Shardlake novels. This is the third in the series, and as soon as my mother had finished reading it (she's also hooked), I snapped up my chance to do so. It's also the best of the bunch, and has basically ruined my life for the last four days I've had off as I could barely put it down. At risk of sounding middle aged, I've been dying to catch up on some sleep, but this damn book just won't let me. Well I've finished it now, so there, damn you!!
Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer in Tudor England, assisted by Jack Barak, his rough-around-the-edges friend who we met in the second book, Dark Fire. Initially quite cold to warm to in Dissolution, he as become a much more likeable character over time.
Previously a supporter of religious reform and an associate of Thomas Cromwell, we now see Shardlake during the latter stages of the reign of Henry VIII. Cromwell has fallen and the Archbishop Cranmer summons Shardlake to send him to oversee the legal matters as the King's Progress reaches York. Shardlake is honoured to accept and see such a sight as the Progress, but Cranmer has something else to ask of him...every cloud and all that.
An important prisoner is being held in York and has held out against torture, refusing to share his knowledge of uprisings in the North. Shardlake is charged with ensuring he reaches London alive when the Progress returns, so that the more 'highly skilled' torturers in the Tower of London can attempt to extract his secrets. Unpleasant work, but Shardlake has already agreed to attend in an official role and cannot refuse.
Being apparently cursed with bad luck, Shardlake hasn't been there long before someone shuffles - or is shuffled - off their mortal coil. And before you know it secrets, revelations and mysteries are popping up all over the shop, playing out behind the scenes of an even bigger show, as Henry VIII himself, now with a young wife in Catherine Howard, rolls into town.
Definitely the best of the first three Shardlakes. The story has many layers and is totally engrossing. It is not quite so religiously heavy as Dissolution, but the mysteries are still there and Sansom's writing style and characters have settled into a reliably readable pace without losing the mental stimulation.
Shardlake is a more and more likeable character, and as he tries to cope with politics and secrecy as well as his own conscience, seeking to solve a murder, maintain the facade of elegance and peace in front of the royal procession, and suffer discrimination at the hands of the highest society for his physical condition (he has a hunched back which is a cause of great feelings of inadequacy for the lawyer). All this and he realises that his own life is in danger for secrets he has come across - and he has a day job as well. Blimey...
Barak grows into himself as a character, something that is inspired further by the arrival of a bold young woman from the Queen's service, Tamasin, who takes a shine to the assistant from the outset. She is a brave character and it is refreshing to have a wider spectrum of characters than just Shardlake and Barak on our side.
The pace of the book is perfect and, whilst I figured out what was going on to some extent before Shardlake twigged, with Sansom there is always a little bit more to it than him just pointing out the killer and that's the end of that. The ending was satisfying and not rushed, and what happens before that cannot fail to make you warm to the lead character if you haven't already - he really has a pretty naff time of it, suffice to say.
So yes, highly recommended. If you want murder, mystery, politics, secrets, strong characters that you come to identify with and support, as well as danger and sinister plots, then this is for you. And if you prefer it to be long before Alex Cross was running around America with an iPad, then all the better. I truly couldn't put this one down, so my productivity went through the floor when I was reading it, but I enjoyed every page.
For a third time, lawyer Matthew Shardlake is called into the service of the Crown, when he is persuaded to go to York to ensure a prisoner is brought back safely for questioning in the Tower of London. Once again, his mission puts him and his friends in great danger.
This is the third (and to date final) book in the Matthew Shardlake series, following Dissolution and Dark Fire. Fans of the series will already know what to expect a murder mystery novel, set in Tudor times.
As with previous Shardlake novels, author C. J. Sansom writes some brilliantly descriptive passages, which really evoke the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor England. Sansoms attempts to re-create the sixteenth century is a real labour of love. His attention to detail is superb, and its obvious that a huge amount of historical research has been done to get things right. Having said that, the historical setting doesnt quite work as well as in the earlier books.
One of the reasons for this is that there is a greater tendency to assume that people know about some of the key events and figures of the period a marked change from the earlier books in the series. There are numerous references, for example, to the Pilgrimage of Grace, yet it is not until relatively late on in the book that it is explained what this was and even then, the explanation is quite brief. This may prove off-putting for some readers who know little of the period.
Similarly, it also seems to make the assumption that the readership will now be established and that people will have read the previous novels. There are frequent references to characters and events in Dissolution and Dark Fire, without any attempt to recap on them. New readers may find this confusing and frustrating, so would be well advised to read the books in order.
The book is much wider in scope than previous efforts. Whilst this is a positive move in many ways (since it brings a fresh feel and approach to established characters), it also has its problems. The series has gradually grown more ambitious. The first novel was very localised, its plot mostly confined to a single place; the second was on a slightly grander scale with more locations. The third is the biggest yet, even bringing in figures such as Henry VIII himself. At times, there are too many characters many not particularly well-defined - and the book loses much of the simplicity that made the first two so readable. Because of this, the story lacks focus and human interest, which also has an impact on your ability to care about what happens next.
Some of the historical aspects feel a little forced this time round as though Sansom is trying to make actual events fit the plot, rather than the other way round. Indeed, in his notes at the end, the author admits to having invented some of the key things described in the book, which does have an effect on its credibility.
Transplanting the action to York and away from London also doesnt work quite so well. The author doesnt appear quite as comfortable or familiar with the northern city and this comes across in his descriptions. Although still very good, they arent quite on the same level as his obviously intimate knowledge of Tudor London. Its always a brave decision to take popular characters out of their familiar settings, and its one which doesnt quite come off here.
The biggest problem, though, is that the book is simply too long. Although it is actually quite a bit shorter than Dark Fire, it feels dragged out. It simply takes so long to find anything out. Clearly Sansom feels that, as an established author, his readers now expect more of him and so he inserts lots of unnecessary pages, covering minor, insignificant events, or he invents excuses to have characters traipsing from one location to another, for no real purpose. As such, the plot drags and, at times, you start to lose interest. Sansom just about saves this by making key revelations at various intervals which revive your interest, but its with a heavy heart that you realise that youve got an awful lot more pages to read before the next revelation. For the first time when reading one of these books, there were times when it was a struggle to carry on. It certainly took me a lot longer to plough my way through this than it did through the first two. Basically, its a 250 page book disguised as a 400 page one.
Some of the same criticisms which were levelled at the first two books also apply here. The characters are, for the most part, a little one-dimensional - generally either good or bad. There are so many characters that it can become difficult to remember who is who or who has done what. This is partly an attempt to throw in lots of red herrings to try and make the mystery more complicated to solve. As before, though, its not actually that difficult to work out. Im not always the quickest to spot plot twists, but even Id got it worked out by about page 100. This makes it all the more frustrating that you then have to wait so long to find out whether you were right (I was!)
The plot also relies a little too much on coincidences. Its amazing the number of times that Shardlake or one of his associates just happen to be in the right place at the right time to witness a crucial event that will give him his next clue. Whereas in the first two books, such plot devices were used carefully, here they are scattered throughout the text and weaken the plots credibility.
By concentrating so much on the negative aspects of the book, I might have mistakenly given the impression that its a poor read. Its not. Its still perfectly enjoyable its just a bit of a disappointment when compared with the first two installments. It promises much, but only partially delivers.
C J Sansom
Pan Books, 2006
The paperback can be bought new from Amazon for £3.99 or second hand for about £1.50.
© Copyright SWSt 2007
Set in Tudor England, Sansom brings to life the political ruses, conspiracies, and religious fanaticism of these murderous times through meticulously research historical accuracy and believable characters.