Revelation (Matthew Shardlake 4) by CJ Sansom

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

RevelationHaving now disposed of wife number 5, loveable heart-throb Henry VIII is busily wooing lucky Catherine Parr, who unaccountably seems a little reluctant to become his bride. It’s unclear if her objection is to the weeping, stinking sores on his legs or to his habit of beheading earlier spouses – some women are just picky, I guess. However, Archbishop Cranmer is determined to bring the wedding about, since he hopes that Catherine will drag Henry back onto the path of Reform from which he has been straying in recent years. So when a man in Catherine’s entourage is found brutally murdered, Cranmer is determined that the murderer shall be found before any whiff of scandal can attach itself to the Lady, thus jeopardising the King’s plan to marry her. Meantime, a fellow lawyer and friend of Matthew Shardlake is also found brutally slain, in circumstances that suggest the two crimes may be linked. Shardlake finds himself working for Cranmer in the hunt for a man who seems to be on a murderous spree inspired by the Book of Revelation

This fourth book in the Shardlake series continues to show the troubled era of Henry VIII and the English Reformation through the various crimes in which Shardlake becomes involved because of his connection to the power brokers in Henry’s court. By this stage, Henry has changed his mind about religion so often that the whole issue has become fraught with peril for his subjects, with the result that sects and cults are growing, each with their own interpretation of the Bible and matters such as predestination, purgatory and hell. Fanatics preach extremism to the gullible, while Henry’s men purge those who believe in the wrong version, and heretics – who only a few years earlier would have been seen as orthodox – are burned at the stake. And some, so messed up by the confused preaching of the times, become crazed, seeking to gain entry to Heaven by following their own corrupted version of the Word. It all sounds very 21st century, in fact!

Our murderer here appears to be attempting to bring about the End Times by acting out the horrors in Revelation. I’m not a Bible person myself, but I must admit Revelation sounds great – I really must read it! Gore, cruelty, torture, shrieking and screaming, eternal damnation and demonic mayhem – not quite Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, ‘Cos the Bible Tells Me So (which is about as deep as my religious education went). Through his characters, Sansom makes the point that many Christians didn’t feel Revelation should be considered part of the Bible, but also that it was then, as it still is, an excellent excuse for all kinds of craziness being allowed to flourish in certain sects. Shardlake himself shows the other side – that all the different versions of the “true faith” and all the cruelties done in the name of religion make it increasingly hard for many to believe in a loving God at all, however much they would like to. As well as the murders, Shardlake finds himself representing a young man, so screwed up by hellfire preaching about sin that he has become a psychological wreck, convinced of his own eternal damnation. He’s one of the lucky ones, though – merely committed to Bedlam rather being burned at the stake, so far at least.

As always, this is a massive and slow-moving book, both adjectives which should put me off completely. But it’s the depth of the characterisation and setting that holds my attention. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a bit like watching a long-running drama serial – spending time with the much-loved characters is actually more important than the plot. I’ve been listening to the books this time around, read by Steven Crossley, and he’s the perfect narrator for them. He maintains each voice consistently throughout the book, or the series if they are recurring characters, so that it’s always clear who is speaking. This isn’t always the case with audiobooks, since authors write for the page and allow punctuation marks to do a lot of the work, so if a narrator doesn’t clearly differentiate it can become confusing.

cj_sansom
CJ Sansom

All the regulars play a full part in this one, too, which is an added bonus. Shardlake is still the same honourable, decent, kind man as always, collecting waifs and strays as he goes. Barak and Tamasin are going through some problems in their marriage, and Guy has taken in a young apprentice, Piers. It’s the conversations between Shardlake and Guy that shed most light on the religious upheavals of the time, as each man tries to make sense of the many changes they have lived through. Theirs has become a deep and loyal friendship now, although there’s still room for them to disagree from time to time.

It’s redundant to say this is an excellent entry in the series, because they’re all excellent. I think this may be the only series to every book of which I have given the full five stars, and of course this is no exception. Highly recommended, book and audiobook both.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

60 thoughts on “Revelation (Matthew Shardlake 4) by CJ Sansom

  1. At the Stay at Home Festival panel I chaired, William Shaw said he lives near C J Sansom and that Sansom is a meticulous planner – 20,000 words before he starts. It certainly shows in his writing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It certainly does! His plots may take forever to play out but he never loses sight of all the various strands and is brilliant at gently reminding the reader of what’s going on at all the right points. I often wish he was more prolific but I suspect it’s because he spends so much time on each book that they’re all so satisfying.

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    • The more I read of these, the more I realise much of our current religious woes date back to this period. The Roman church may have had its problems, but at least back then everyone in the Christian world believed the same things…

      Liked by 1 person

      • When Henry founded the Church of England both the action itself and also the title asserted English exceptionalism, didn’t it. The 1532 Act in Restraint of Appeals (ie appeals to the Pope) included this assertion:
        “Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King…”

        Cynically citing the fake chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and others it first claimed an imperium for itself while simultaneously clocking a snook at Johnny Foreigner, and thereby laid claim to the creed that Englishmen could basically do what they liked in overseas matters — a belief that our PM continually expresses each time he opens his mouth.

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        • Of course, up here the Reformation gave us the glories of the Church of Scotland and the belief that Scotland had a special Covenant with the Lord, so I suspect England wasn’t alone in its delusions of religious grandeur! It did give us John Knox though, for which I’m rather grateful since I find him very useful to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in Scotland over the last several hundred years… 😉

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  2. I haven’t read this far in the series but I remember being struck by the nuanced way that Sansom wrote about the religious upheaval in the first couple of books. I thought he did a grand job of depicting the way that different political factions seized on different theologies and ideologies for convenience and political power, but in a way that mostly didn’t reflect the real faith of most people in those groups – that’s quite a complex thing to get right and I was really impressed that he’d done it. It sounds like that continues throughout the series.

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    • Despite having studied this period at both school and, briefly, university, I’ve learned far more about the Reformation from Sansom’s books than from all the heavyweight histories I’ve read over the years. I think it’s because he humanises the debates so well, and having an ex-monk and a disillusioned Reformer as his main characters is an inspired way to present all the various arguments of the time. I also find that it’s his versions of Cromwell, Cranmer and the rest that have become my mental picture of them all, even when reading “proper” history.

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      • Yes, I agree about the successful humanisation of the period. As a Protestant I can’t deny that a) I’m glad the Reformation happened but b) a lot of extremely terrible things took place as a result, and lots of the political stuff was done by people with vested interests and no actual concern about theology or piety. It’s a strange tension to experience when thinking about the time, and although I’ve read other books set in the period I think he’s the only one who captures that.

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        • I have mixed feelings about it because up here John Knox was the big leader, and frankly he was an appalling creature. The Protestant Church up here was a joyless affair with far more emphasis on eternal damnation that on salvation, and that lasted until quite recently – well into my own lifetime. On the other hand it was Knox and the Protestant Church who insisted on universal education which made Scotland a uniquely literate society very early on, and gave us great universities and the Scottish Enlightenment, so there’s much to be grateful to them for too…

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  3. One thing I like about Sansom’s work is the way he weaves together larger events (like the Reformation and larger political issues) with the smaller, daily events, and of course, with the mystery plots. That takes some doing, and it does mean the books get longer. But as you say, a length that might put me right off a larger book is not a problem with Sansom. And I think it’s that weaving together of events (and the characters, of course). At least it is for me. As ever, an excellent review, FictionFan!

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    • Thank you! I agree – if Matthew had been a powerful court character, the books wouldn’t have been nearly so good. It’s his relatively middle class status that allows Sansom to give a credible picture of how ordinary people lived, and he’s brilliant at showing the lower class commoners too, through the people Matthew represents. This series really sets such a high standard for how historical fiction should be written – just wish he was a little more prolific, but then his books might not be so well done…

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  4. It’s quite overwhelming to think of living in a time where not only are people bound to follow certain religious practices by the powerful, but also where the “right, true” path keeps changing. Sansom depicts (and informs about) that world and individuals living in it so well. And your reviews do his writing justice!

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    • Thank you! Even in my lifetime, Christianity in Britain has changed to the point of almost being unrecognisable – in Scotland, at least, where I suspect we’re not quite finished with the Reformation yet! But to have things change every few years, and to suddenly find yourself a “heretic” when just a few years earlier you were in the mainstream – it must have been terrifying. I feel that Sansom having an ex-monk and a disillusioned Reformer as his main characters was truly inspired – it’s such a great way to show all the changes without it feeling like a history lesson.

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  5. “It’s unclear if her objection is to the weeping, stinking sores on his legs or to his habit of beheading earlier spouses – some women are just picky, I guess.” 😅 😂😅 😂😅 😂 Hilarious! I admit to being a little reticent when I read the words “massive” and “slow moving.” But I once read Shogun by James Clavell, so I could probably make it through this.

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    • Hahaha, I do feel it must have been awful to suddenly discover that Henry had you in his sights as his next bride! I think I’d have fled the country… 😉 Ha, I tried to read Shogun at one point and couldn’t get into it at that time, though it’s one I may try again sometime. But these are a bit like Dickens to me – not the writing style, but the way there’s always something interesting going on so that I don’t notice the length quite so much.

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  6. As you say, it all sounds very 21st century. There is still plenty of conflict within the church these days, especially around different denominations, each of whom believe themselves to be right. As a practicing Christian myself, I find the divisions very disheartening, yet am at the same time fascinated by the numerous interpretations of scripture, and the orogins of different denominations. Great review, I’m glad you are still enjoying the series even though the books seem to be becoming progressively longer.

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    • Despite being a lifelong atheist (the daughter of an ex-Catholic mother and an ex-Protestant father) I find religion fascinating and have always rather regretted my lack of belief. I’m always intrigued by the way people tend to pick and choose which bits of the Bible they believe, and then consider that their interpretation is the only right one. The thing is, there are so many contradictions in it that you can find support for pretty much any position you choose to take. I often wonder if the Reformation was really a good thing, from the point of view both of religion and society. The Roman church had its problems, for sure, and needed to have the corruption rooted out, but at least back then the whole Christian world pretty much all believed in the same things and shared a single set of moral values…

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  7. The quote you led off with is one used more than once in Canadian author Louise Penny’s newest novel, which I just finished (and enjoyed). To say it grabbed my attention would be an understatement. I haven’t read any of this series, but what you’ve written makes it sound interesting. Something I might have to check further into.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You’re right. They’re ALL excellent! (but this is my favorite of the bunch)

    Maybe someday I’ll try an audio version. (but I doubt it!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was trying to think if I have a favourite and I’m not sure that I do – maybe Lamentation, but I’ll have to re-read it to be sure! For some reason I find these audiobooks much easier to listen to than most – I can listen in much longer chunks without losing concentration. I think it’s a combo of the great books and the great narration…

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  9. I’m not even a huge fan of historical crime fiction, and yet I love this series. My son was revising for his Tudors for A levels and I was using the Kett Rebellion knowledge I had gained from the Shardlake series to test him!

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    • Haha, I wish they’d been around when I was studying the Tudors! I’ve certainly learned more about the Reformation from him than from all the weighty tomes I’ve read over the years… 😀

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  10. Thank you for nudging me back to this series. I read books 1- 3 and then jumped to number 6 because it was the only one available via the library as an audiobook. I’ve now discovered they have Revelation on audio. So looking forward to returning to the series.

    Have you read the Giordano Bruno series by s J parris? I’ve read one so far and really enjoyed it.

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    • I’m really enjoying the audio versions – they work great as audios, which isn’t true for all books, I find. I did read and enjoy the first couple of Giordano Bruno books when they came out, but I revisited the series recently with a much more recent one and I felt she’d gone off the boil a bit – it didn’t seem as credible as the earlier ones. Maybe it was just a blip, though – most series have the occasional duff one.

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    • They’re not nearly so time-consuming as W&P though – the writing style is so effortless I find them quite a quick read despite the length. Plus each character doesn’t have three different names… 😉

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    • Haha, suddenly discovering Henry VIII fancied you must have been even more terrifying than some of the guys I’ve hidden from in Glaswegian bars in my youth! 😉 I also enjoyed Lamentation which had a lot more about Catherine Parr in it – she’s often rather neglected as one of Henry’s wives, maybe because she survived the ordeal!

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    • Haha, I really must read the Book of Revelation – it may end up being suitable for a Tuesday Terror slot! 😉 Although the Shardlake books are huge, they’re written so flowingly that I find them quite quick to read – they’re not as dense as heavyweight fiction can be. Go on – you know you want to… 😀

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    • Hahaha, imagine being told that Henry VIII had decided you would be the perfect next Queen! I think I’d have emigrated… 😉 It’s a great series, though – Shardlake is such a wonderful character.

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        • Ha, yes, though I think poor Katherine didn’t find her marriage particularly idyllic either! 😉 It’s the fathers I blame – forcing their daughters to marry this ogre despite knowing what was likely to happen to their daughters. Ugh!

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  11. I enjoyed this book too. I remember searching for a church to take the picture of the book for the blog, that was fun.

    These books are long, but very interesting at the same time. I like his style too.

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    • When it’s well done, historical fiction can be such an easy way to learn some history – I swear I’ve learned more about the Tudor period from Sansom than from all the weighty history books I’ve read over the years! And they’re so readable – his style just flows.

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  12. you’re making it harder for me to just walk past the shelf of these outside my bedroom! One day I’m going to have to pick one up, they do sound brilliant reading.

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    • They’re a great series – well worth the time investment! And actually, despite the length, I find them quite quick reads comparatively – his style makes reading them effortless, somehow. Go for it! 😀

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  13. I find it fascinating how Christians are so quick to criticize other religions, Islam for instance, for their brutality, when books like Revelations exist! It’s all so muddled, which is why I stick with no clear religion other than books themselves 🙂

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