Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

Cromwell’s secret weapon…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…

The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.

Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.

Greek Fire, known in the book as “dark fire”

Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.

Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.

Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.

CJ Sansom

As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.

I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.

So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.

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41 thoughts on “Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

    • I find re-reading easier on audio since dips in concentration don’t matter quite so much. Classics seem to work too, but I really struggle with either contemporary fiction or crime that I haven’t read before. Sansom is brilliant – hope he’s working hard on the next one!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You can’t go far wrong with a Matthew Shardlake story, can you, FictrionFan? I really appreciate the way Sansom weaves in so many different plot elements into his stories without losing sight of any of them, and without confusing the reader. He’s able to keep track of quite a cast of characters, and that takes skill. And, of course, there’s the history part of it all…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I like that he usually has an ordinary people plot strand as well as an important people one – so much Tudor fiction exclusively concentrates on the royals. And with him being a real historian I always have confidence in the history. Plus I love Matthew… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re back!!! And what a stunning re-entry you’re making here. This sounds like an intriguing piece of work, but like you, I think the audio book might be the better way to go (and here, I’m typically more in the printed word category!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, back and ready to get into some spooky autumn reading! 😀 I really prefer the printed word too though I’m getting better at appreciating audiobooks with practice – it’s a whole different experience though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Welcome back, I hope you have been able to catch your breath a bit over the last couple of weeks. This is one of the ones I must have listened to in an abridged format before, but I think I’ll need to start again at the beginning of the series with the full recordings. I’m glad this more or less worked for you as an audiobook.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Ha! I don’t know what exactly I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks but I still seem to have a backlog of reviews to write – slacking on the job, obviously! 😉 I do love the immersive experience of the full-length Sansoms. I imagine the abridged versions do a good job with the story, but it’s all the detail about Tudor life that really makes the series shine…


  4. Even though I can’t do audio, I would enjoy hearing the voices used for the characters in this. I think you know this is one of my favorite series. I’ve read them all and have my fingers crossed there will be another. Welcome back!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – back and ready to get into some spooky autumn reading! I’ve really had to work at enjoying audiobooks but I’m much better at it now and can listen for fairly long periods without losing concentration, though it still takes me weeks to “read” a book! There are so many great narrators now – the quality has improved dramatically over the last decade. A Golden Age… 😀

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  5. These two stories sounds interesting, and I would vote for the personal vs the political at this moment in history. I admire those who can “do” all of the voices for audiobooks. It feels quite demanding. I just wish I weren’t such a visual person. My attention wanders to whatever my eyes are seeing, so I may as well be reading, if I want to be engaged with a story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My attention wanders too – it’s why it takes me so long to “read” audiobooks. Thirty minutes is the absolute maximum I can do at a time. It’ definitely a different skill narrating audiobooks – some of the big actors really aren’t very good at it, while some of the top narrators never seem to do much stage or screen acting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am glad to see you found a five star book! But of course the odds are slightly better, when you’ve read it before. 😉 You certainly make a good case, but I am not keen on historical fiction dating that far back and seriously, 600 pages? Anyway, good to see you back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, that’s what makes re-reading such a pleasure – the certainty of enjoyment! Ah but just imagine all you’d learn about London – it’s incredible how many of the places and building still exist…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reading your reviews of this and the first book has made me think that I should really pick the series up again – I read to book 3 I think, and then dropped it for some reason, but I did enjoy them very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still love them although the history does take over from the story perhaps as the series goes on. But I just love spending time in Matthew’s company, so for once the length is a pleasure to me rather than a penance! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ok so I fear this is a really silly question, but you know I’m not well versed in history so I’m not ashamed to ask you; how ‘true’ is this story? The whole dark fire thing-is that just a supernatural element added to an otherwise true story?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, I hadn’t heard of it either till I read this book the first time, but apparently it was a real weapon, not unlike napalm. It was based on oil which was why they had it in the middle east but not western Europe, and it worked kinda like a massive flamethrower. When the Byzantines lost their power, the secret of the weapon was lost too, but apparently every now and again people would try to reinvent it, but without success. Sansom’s stories are nearly always based on real things! That’s what makes him so enjoyable. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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