Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

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35 thoughts on “Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

    • He manages to make all the detail feel like a natural part of Shardlake’s curiosity about the world he lives in, so that it never comes over as an info dump. I’ve learned more about the Tudors from Sansom than from all the weary history books I’ve read! 😀

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  1. If you’re gong to experience a series again, FictionFan, this is definitely the one to try, in my opinion. Such rich plots and interesting characters! And I’ve always liked the way Sansom presents the complexity of the times, rather than painting it all in ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ I love the Shardlake character, too. I can see how this would appeal as much in audio form as in paper or electronic form.

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    • I don’t do nearly enough re-reading since I started blogging, so discovering that audiobooks are a great way to re-read has been a boon! I love Shardlake too – he’s such a real character, good, loyal, but also grumpy and sometimes unfair. I like him better for his flaws! And I always feel I’ve learned more about the Tudors from Sansom than from all the history books I’ve read over the years. 😀

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    • Re-reading these via audiobooks has been a great way to spend some of my lockdown time – they’re so absorbing they actually take my mind off real life for a while, which is a boon! 😀

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    • I don’t know why, but audiobooks have been working much better for me during lockdown – usually I struggle with them too. And I find re-reads work better – then if I lose concentration for a bit I still know roughly what’s going on… 😀

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  2. Your audiobook intake seems to have increased since Covid, I’m glad they have grown on you so much, and it sounds as though this series is especially well suited to that format. My consentration for long books and series is still not great at the moment, but I will re-visit Shardlake eventually, as I love anything Tudor related.

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    • It definitely has and I’m not sure why – the comfort of it feeling like old-time bedtime stories maybe? Also discovering that I do better with re-reads in audio form has helped – I still struggle with concentration on books I don’t already know. And the narration of these is so good I can listen for fairly lengthy stretches before I find myself drifting off…

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  3. I am glad to hear so many good things about this series. After reading the first one, I bought 3 more in the series (back when I could go to book sales) and it sounds like I will enjoy them too. I don’t like to read about torture, but maybe I can skim that section.

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    • I love the whole series and grew fonder and fonder of Shardlake as a character as they’ve gone along – he now feels like an old friend! The torture section is actually very small and not too gruesome so don’t be put off by it – I couldn’t read it either if it had been too graphic.

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    • They’re so long that it’s sometimes hard to find the time to pick them up, but once I get started I quickly become completely absorbed, and don’t find they take as long to read as I expected. It’s my favourite historical fiction series of all time!

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  4. Ever since The Goldfinch, I’ve been averse to books that didn’t get the editorial trimming they needed, no matter how well written, otherwise. I just have so little time, and I’m a slow reader and not good at skimming….

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      • Despite the length of these I never feel like I want to skim, because it’s all the detail about Tudor life that makes them such a pleasure to read, That, and the depth of Matthew Shardlake as a character. In fact, the plots are the bit I forget most quickly! And because they’re so well written, without lots of stylistic fol-de-rols and stuff, I find they’re a much quicker read than I expect each time.

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