Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake 6) by CJ Sansom

lamentationHeresy hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. All the Shardlake novels are set close to the throne, with Matthew caught up as a pawn in the political machinations and religious manoeuvrings of the nobility as they jostle for power and position at court. Matthew himself, as a lawyer, is richer and more privileged than most people, but still is powerless and vulnerable amongst these great folk, while his physical weakness as a hunchback leaves him reliant on others when danger beckons. It is Matthew’s intelligence on which Catherine depends – his ability to question witnesses and to see his way through the labyrinth of plots and betrayals.

Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr

But although this makes the Shardlake books more cerebral than many of the sword and dagger historical novels, there’s plenty of action in them too. Jack Barak is back as Matthew’s assistant in his legal business, and as always becomes involved in the investigation. Tamasin, Jack’s wife, is expecting their second child, and we see both Matthew and Jack struggling to reconcile Jack’s love of danger with his responsibilities as a husband and father. And Matthew has a new assistant too – Nicholas, a young gentleman sent by his parents to study law. Like Jack, though, Nicholas quickly shows he’s ready to put his life in danger to help Matthew. And by his careful development of the character of Shardlake, Sansom makes it entirely credible that he should gain such loyalty from the people around him. Matthew’s old friend Guy is here again too; and, since he is still loyal to the church of Rome in his heart, his discussions with the more reformist Matthew allow Sansom to shed light on the religious divisions in society as they shift and change during this turbulent period.

Catherine Parr's book - Lamentations of a Sinner
Catherine Parr’s book – Lamentations of a Sinner

I’ve read many ‘proper’ histories about the Tudor times, but I can honestly say that Sansom always gives me a much deeper understanding of what was actually going on, especially amongst those below the top rank. I’m no expert, but I never spot any historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies, and I find the Tudor world that Sansom describes wholly credible. This book, like the others, is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel is consistent with what we know of them through the history books. By the time of this novel, Shardlake’s old employer Cromwell is dead, but his long-time adversary Sir Richard Rich is still up to his political games. And we get a first glimpse of a newcomer to court, young William Cecil, ambitious, but loyal to Catherine and the reformist cause. With Henry declining, we see his children growing in importance as England begins to consider what will follow his reign – who will hold power while young Edward is still a child.

CJ Sansom
CJ Sansom

There is a secondary plot in the book, of a feud between a brother and sister over a will, and this gives us an insight into the day-to-day working life of Shardlake and his employees, while showing us that the legal profession is just as riddled with power struggles and divided loyalties as the court. We also see Shardlake at home, his house populated by the various strays he has picked up in previous books. And it’s by showing all these different aspects of Matthew’s life that Sansom builds up a complete picture of the man – honest and loyal, struggling to find his own faith within the religious turmoil going on around him, and with a huge sense of responsibility to the people around him: a responsibility that weighs him down and leaves him guilt-ridden for exposing them to danger. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake 6) by CJ Sansom

    • Thanks, Rebecca! (Just finished Shallow Waters last night, BTW – enjoyed it! 🙂 ) I like most of what Sansom writes, but I think the Shardlake books are head and shoulders above his other stuff. I enjoyed Dominion but had a few reservations about it – not with this one though. Don’t write him off! 🙂

  1. FictionFan – So glad you enjoyed this. I’ll be honest: like Rebecca, I wasn’t at all impressed with Dominion. But I will say that his Shardlake series is quite different. At some point I may even do a spotlight on one of those novels.

    • I enjoyed Dominion more than either of you, I think, though I did have some reservations about it. But I always think the Shardlake novels are his best, and this one is really excellent. It’s made me want to go back and re-read the whole series… *sighs*

  2. HURRAH! Welcome back. You have been missed. Now maybe this could be my ‘recommended by a friend’ from the challenge. i do like Sansom. My only problem is not having read the entire series in order, so I may miss some nuances by coming in late to the party.

    • Thanks, m’dear! Well, I’m very happy to recommend all of the Shardlake novels, so you could pick the next one you haven’t read. They do stand alone, more or less, but I honeslty think they’re better read in order because he does carry the characterisation on and develop them based on previous events…

      • Well I’ve just got this winged to me from NG so I’ll hop in mid stream and go backwards later. The year has started badly with an avalanche of new TBRs as ARCs, stuff I bought, and second hand wood books from market place sellers which somehow arrived in armfuls from the postman . I really don’t understand why i had four deliveries today. I think he kept discovering more in the bottom of his bag

  3. This might sound odd a bit, but I love the fact that this book is long. Something just seems right (to this professor) for an adventure to be long. I really enjoyed the few historical fictions that I’ve read. The one that pops to mind is one of Dumas’ French Revolution stories.

    Is there a lot of spying and stuff?

    • I love long books so long as they’re good, and not just full of unnecessary padding. But I’m always delighted to see the bricklike size of the Shardlake novels – great to get really involved in. You may enjoy these – the plots are good and they can be a bit slow, I suppose, but there’s always quite a lot of action too – swordfights and such, and they’re always set at an interesting point of history. Not so much spying, but plenty of plotting and skulduggery…

      I haven’t read any Dumas, I think… *blushes*

      • That’s the opposite of Les Miz right there. But I think I liked that book. Can’t remember much about it the sudden. Skulduggery is a rather nice word. Very nice. I’ll have to say it around. See? You must be a warrior since you read books with lots of action! (This is good, btw.)

        Yes! No…this is good. I think I’ve read 3 of his books. Anytime I can feel like I’ve read more than you, it’s quite good. Nick is a huge HUGE fan.

        • You liked the sewers, if I recall correctly *puzzled face*. Skulduggery is one of my very favourite words – it’s beautifully desciptive isn’t it? It couldn’t possibly mean anything else! I do like a bit of action – I should read more.

          3!!! I couldn’t even name three of his books. Hmm…liked by both of you…tempting…but not quite tempting enough…yet…

          • And the little brats part. It was cool. It is descriptive! It could be speaking about sewers for all we know. Yes! It’s nice to see you moving away from romance…

            Good. You shouldn’t read any! But you should know…one of my favorite books of all time is The Black Tulip. I think I told you that. I should probably rip it.

  4. I love Shardlake, but again, I haven’t read them in order, and I think I’ve missed one or two…I think I’ll go back and read them – I have them, somewhere – before I get this one. All the reviews I’ve read of it have been fantastic. I did fancy reading Dominion, but Rebecca and Margot’s reaction have put me off…But I’m a big fan of WWII set books. Have you read it?

    Good question from the Professor…I love spying and stuff too!

    • Yes, I do think it’s worth reading them in order – although each story is separate, the characters develop throughout the series. I liked Dominion much more than either Margot or Rebecca, though I never enjoy his non-Shardlake books quite as much. I had a couple of problems with Dominion – partly he got a bit bogged down in describing his alternate history in too much detail and partly I didn’t like the way he made some real people have Nazi sympathies for the sake of the plot. But overall I gave it a strong 4 stars and would recommend it – I think you’d probably enjoy it, being interested in history and politics like me. Here’s my review https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/dominion-by-cj-sansom/

      Not so much spying in Lamentation, but plenty of plotting and political manoeuvering…

    • I don’t think he’s nearly as big in the States as he is over here – they’re about English history of course. But I was just commenting to Lady Fancifull that this book has got nearly a thousand reviews on Amazon UK already and it’s only been out a couple of months, so he’s absolutely huge over here. And deservedly so…

  5. Ok, I give up – I’ll start at the beginning and read them in order. A New Year’s resolution I might actually keep.:)

  6. Totally agree that Sansom is one of the best historical fiction writers out there. Lamentation is a fantastic read, and it really does completely pull you in to the story.

    • Yes I love Sansom – and I thought this one might even be the best of them all. I really want to go back and read the whole series again now…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  7. What a brilliant review. I’ve seen the Sansom books around, and even picked them up a few times, read the blurb and then left them in the shop. It now seems like I need to put Dominion in my bag and get to grips with this series. I love good historical novels and if it has your seal of approval for accuracy and immersive plot, well, that’s good enough for me! First review of the year and already you’ve increased the TBR. 😉

    • Hmm…interesting question. Somehow he has the skill to make it reasonably clear, but I’m not really sure how he does it. The political and religious stuff is always pretty accurate, and though he takes a bit of liberty with the real people in terms of putting words in their mouths or even actions, the things he makes them do are always consistent with what we know about them. But helpfully in this one (can’t remember if the same is true of the others), he’s included a short essay at the end, discussing the true history of Catherine’s Lamentations – which I must say I found as fascinating as the book. He seems to me to research as thoroughly as historians research factual books – in fact, I’d say he’s as much an historian as a fiction writer, really… but adding the fictional plot makes it a very palatable read…

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