Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

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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.

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Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake 6) by CJ Sansom

lamentationHeresy hunt…

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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…

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Dominion by CJ Sansom

dominionWhat if?

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In a departure from his Shardlake series, Sansom has created here an alternative recent history – what if Britain had surrendered to Germany after Dunkirk? What if Nazi sympathisers were running the government? What if Churchill had never become Prime Minister and instead was leading a resistance movement? Sansom creates a world that is so similar to the real world and yet so different that I eventually found I was having to make an effort to remember what was reality and what was fiction.

The plot follows a group of members of the resistance as they try to protect a man who holds a secret that mustn’t fall into the hands of the Germans. We get to know each of the main characters well – Sansom gives us enough of their backstories to let us understand their motivations and each is, in his or her own way, easy to empathise with. Although he doesn’t shy away from describing the atrocities against the Jews and Russians, even the German characters come across as understandable and oddly sympathetic, however horrifying their thoughts and actions.

CJ Sansom (waterstones.com)
CJ Sansom
(waterstones.com)

As always, Sansom’s excellent descriptive writing creates a completely believable world and this is both a strength and a weakness of the book. I felt that sometimes he got so wrapped up in expanding on the world of his creation that he slowed the plot down to a level that prevented the tension from building quite as much as it should in what is fundamentally a thriller. I was also left a bit uncomfortable about the way he made some real-life right-wing politicians into Nazi sympathisers for the purposes of his plot, particularly some who in real life had served either in the forces or in Churchill’s government. Overall, though, I found this to be an interesting, cleverly constructed and well-written book that indeed left me wondering ‘what if?’. Recommended.

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