Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

29 thoughts on “Tombland by CJ Sansom

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this as well as you did, FictionFan. I agree with you that Sansom has a real skill at telling a story first and weaving in his considerable historical knowledge as it serves the story. That’s not easy to do. I like Matthew Shardlake’s character very much, but I’m also glad Sansom didn’t make the mistake of making him flawless and without his own prejudices and so on. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who can keep a reader engaged – really engaged – for 800 pages is talented indeed.

    • I find his books totally immersive and *whispers* learn far more history from them than from most of the actual history books I read! Because he tells such a good story, the history becomes real and sticks in my mind better. If only he’d been writing while I was studying history at Uni – I had to make do with DK Broster’s The Flight of the Heron… 😉

      • I’ve often thought I would have learned more history if it had been told the way Sansom tells a story. He tells the stories of authentic human people. And that’s what history is, anyway – people’s stories.

        • Absolutely! I joke now about The Flight of the Heron, but I learned more about the Jacobites from it than from all the real history books. It’s over-romanticised but as far as I could tell, the actual facts were accurately presented.

    • Thank you! 😀 Ha – the book is so long I felt that the blurb took up most of the review! The porpy was pleased to get a break from terror while I got engrossed in this one… 😉 You must read them all…

  2. I completely agree about Sansom. He’s great isn’t he? I wonder if they’re ever going to get round to making films of the books or televising them because I think they’d be great.

  3. I have had to skin your review as am in Tombland myself…but am so pleased to see the glowing 5 stars. I agree with your sum up at the excellence of this author. Shardlake and others have become FRIENDS across this series, and, for example the falling out between Tamasin and Shardlake hurts the reader, as if both were ‘in real’ the reader’s friends, who has become estranged

    • Oh, I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I did! I really want to re-read the entire series from the beginning – maybe next year. Yes, I love Shardlake himself, but I also love how Sansom never forgets to bring us up to date on all the other characters. I’ve loved Jack and Tamasin for several books, but in this one I felt I got to know Nicholas much better too. And I love the way he uses the characters to show all the different classes and religious divides… fab!!

  4. I’m hoping to read this myself soon, so I’m glad it got the full five stars from you! The Shardlake books just get better and better, don’t they? I love the way Sansom creates such a complete, convincing Tudor world – and yes, it can be quite refreshing these days to find an author who concentrates on telling a good story rather than trying to be quirky and creative!

    • They really do – the last couple have been superb! I’m a big fan of plain storytelling as you know, and Sansom does it so well. I learn far more history from his books than I do from actual history books, because he brings it all so wonderfully to life. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did – I’m sure you will! 😀

  5. Sounds as if you really enjoyed this one! No wonder, though, you needed to take an extended break from blogging. Eight hundred pages? Oh FF, how I admire you for even starting (much less finishing) such a beast!

    • Haha – I know, they’re always monsters! But nice monsters – the kind you don’t mind spending a couple of weeks with. 😀 I hope he’s hard at work on the next one…

    • You really do need these! And the first few were much shorter – probably only 500 or 600 pages each. And there’s only seven of them… you’ll be finished in no time if you start now… 😉

    • Definitely a must-read! This one is just as fab and immersive as Lamentation which I thought was his best at that point – but each one is his best! I never want to leave Shardlake’s world at the end of them. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did – and I hope he’s hard at work on the next one!!

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m reading another chunkster too at the moment – No Name by Wilkie Collins – and I’ve been reading it for weeks because it’s doing nothing for me. Tombland engrossed me so much it only took me ten days to read – the difference between a long book and a great book!! Oh, I hope you do get a chance to read them, long though they are – they’re really brilliant! 😀

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