Despite my faint endorsement of the first two C J Sansom's historical whodunit Shardlake novels, I decided to plough on regardless with the third book in the series, Sovereign (2006).
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In truth, I was in deepest Madagascar with only one book to read. Perhaps it was the lack of choice, but I thought Sansom had finally got into his stride with Sovereign. Shardlake seemed a little more human; shaped by cynicism and a comfortable friendship with his sidekick Barak. Likewise, I thought the plot was less awkwardly contrived to fit in with the historical facts of the time, and more straightforward and believable.
Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer living in 1530's/40's England, and in the first novel Dissolution is a keen supporter of the reformation (promoting the change in religion from catholic to protestant). Shardlake finally discovers that the plan to close down the monasteries wasn't to distribute money to the poor, but to give King henry VIII's friends more power and riches. The discovery turns him into a mere passive observer of the King; just keeping his head down and dreaming of retirement.
Shardlake is disabled (he has a hunchback) and has a young assistant, Jack Barak (who we first meet in the second novel, Dark Fire) to help him with the physical tasks involved.
Sovereign finds Shardlake in 1541, back in the spotlight. He has been asked to do some work by one of his former friends which will bring him back into contact with the king. Shardlake and Barak are asked to join the King's Progress to York. A recent near rebellion has been quashed and the King is keen for signs of allegiance and vengeance.
Shardlake has been asked as a trusted pair of hands to both prepare the petitions to be considered by the King (largely land squabbles), and to look after one of the remaining rebellion leaders. This man, Broderick is to be kept alive until he can be tortured and relieved of his secrets in the Tower of London. It may sound like a simple task but someone is trying to kill Broderick to cover any links to other rebellion conspirators.
The novel is largely set at kings Manor in the centre of York, near the famous Cathedral. Funnily enough, I recently attended a training course in the building (now part of York University), and I could tell that Sansom's description of the place was pretty faithful. It is a beautiful old manor house, with a fabulous inner courtyard. Very near is the ruins of St Mary's Abbey; in the book it is being torn down.
The manor is famous for being the place where the King lingered as he awaited the king of Scotland. The Scottish King eventually stood King Henry VIII up. The novel incorporates this historical fact into the plot.
The story offers the usual mix of mystery, murder and mayhem and attempts on Shardlake's life as he moves closer to unlocking the secret of the killer. Barak meanwhile gets lucky and hits on one of the women in the court of the Queen, so once again there is a little romance in the air.
I particularly thought the shallow cruel personality of the King was well presented.
As is standard for the Shardlake series the writing is fairly direct and simple, if a little flowery, and the pace continues to trot along at a reasonable clip. Overall, the best of the Shardlake novels, and my enforced read persuaded me to nip out and buy the latest (the fourth) in the series.
cr01 asserts his right to associated as the author of this review -2009-
On a roll and still lean and mean