Tombland: A Shardlake Novel #7 by C.J. Sansom

For anyone who loves a great novel and especially those who love historical fiction and haven’t yet read a C.J. Sansom Shardlake book, stop what you’re doing now and grab a copy of the first, Dissolution. I only suggest that so by the time you get to Sansom’s latest, Tombland, you not only have a full appreciation of the imaginative scope and the character arcs in these novels, but also the historical backdrop in which these wonderful adventures featuring the intrepid and kind hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, are set.

The latest in the series, Tombland, an epic at over 800 pages, is also an absolute masterpiece. Set two years after the death of Henry VIII, in the Spring of 1549 during the Protectorate and young King Edward’s reign, this novel follows Matthew and his assistant Nicholas, as they’re called to investigate a distant relative of young Princess Elizabeth (recently involved in a shameful incident with the former queen’s husband, Thomas Seymour), who has been accused of murder and is imprisoned in Norwich. Elizabeth has no desire to be openly involved, but is determined to get to the truth of the accusation and help a family member. Left with no choice but to obey the unusual request, Shardlake and Nicholas head north-east, keen to get out of London, if not to become embroiled in royal antics and politics anymore. However, they assure themselves that the case doesn’t appear complicated and they shouldn’t be occupied with it for too long.

Naturally, we know they’ve spoken too soon.

Not only is the case involving John Boleyn far more complicated than Shardlake first hoped, but while they’re preoccupied with proving John Boleyn’s innocence, East Anglia erupts into violence as a peasant rebellion lead by a landowner, Robert Kett, begins.

The more Shardlake tries to stay remote from the peasant rebellion, the more he and his friends are drawn into it, including Barak (who is in the area for the assizes). Witnessing great cruelty, corruption, bravery and kindness, Shardlake is tested in so many ways. Not only is his loyalty to king and country put on the line but that to his closest and dearest of friends as well. Shardlake quickly learns that being a lawyer and gentleman can be more dangerous than he ever would have believed.

Set against the backdrop of a genuine and little-known rebellion, and at a time when the English currency was debased, inflation on the rise and the English people suffering the catastrophic effects of an ongoing war with Scotland and France as well as poor harvests, by injecting Shardlake into a relatively obscure part of English history, Sansom has brought it to life in such a majestic and yet devastating way. Through Shardlake’s eyes, we see the desperation, suffering of the English poor as well as their blind faith in their king to do the right thing by them. The way in which they felt they’d no choice but to rebel and even so, did all in their power to adhere to a code of conduct that would impress their sovereign, is heart-wrenching. So are the consequences of their actions.

Whether it’s intimate scenes between friends, or an interrogation that Sansom writes or sweeping battles, the reader is in the heart of the story and it’s an aching one that leaves you wanting both more and less.

Having said that, I couldn’t put this book down and I didn’t want it to end either. Shardlake’s world, while cruel, contrary and riddled with injustices, is also rich and fascinating. Moreso, because we are guided through it by one of the best characters in historical fiction today – the ethical and compassionate, wise and good-humoured, self-reflective Shardlake.

Sansom’s PhD in history really comes to the fore here as he uses – not just history, but a sense of its continuity and relevance to today, inviting us to immerse ourselves in the moments, all of which propels his story along. As a bonus, readers are treated to an essay on the actual events from Sansom at the back of the book and it so worth reading. There is also a recommended book list and sources. I loved discovering how and where he used actual events and people in his tale and where he inserted Shardlake – who, despite being fictional, appears seamlessly.

I cannot recommend this book or series highly enough. I can’t even say these books get better and better because they’ve always been of such an impossibly high standard – and in Tombland, this has been more than maintained.

My only disappointment is I now have to wait (im)patiently for the next one.  A tremendous read – inspirational, unforgettable, entertaining and educational. You can’t ask for much more.



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Holy Spy by Rory Clements

imgres-12Though number seven in the John Shakespeare series, Holy Spy takes readers back to 1586 and the year that all the efforts to expose Mary Queen of Scots as a traitor to the throne of England came to a head – in the guise of the Babington plot. This well-documented by history plot was foolish and doomed to failure, not merely because Sir Francis Walsingham and his network of spies were aware of it from the outset, but also because of the young bucks at its heart and the spirit into which they entered into the deadly game of politics and assassinations. More interested in bravado and braggadocio and how they might be remembered by posterity than in how they were going to pull off their conspiracy to kill Elizabeth Ist, they were careless and far too open about their intentions, something which history notes as well and Clements explores with humanity and flair. I mean, how many serious killers would seek to have their portrait painted in commemoration of a deed they have not yet committed?

Assigned to infiltrate the Babington plotters, Shakespeare (fictional brother to William) must pose as a Catholic and watch and note the goings on of the men and report back to his masters, waiting for the moment when he must reveal that he has betrayed those he calls friends.

As is usual with a Clements’ book, Shakespeare also has a personal crisis running parallel to the national one in which he is heavily invested to prevent – in this novel, his former love, Kat, is accused of a planning a bloody and brutal murder – a claim the murderer himself, who faces death, make. He swears that Kat hired him to despatch her husband, Nick Giltspur. Fleeing the accusations, the beautiful but mercurial Kat, will be hunted down and put to death unless John can prove her innocence.

Moving between stately homes, smoky taverns, country halls, ships, the offices of Walsingham and other courtiers in Elizabeth’s various palaces as well as prisons, the novel is a rollicking great read, that evokes the era and beautifully denotes the personalities of the conspirators and other characters as well, giving names you read in history’s pages depth, breadth and managing to make readers pity their wild ideas, zeal and blind faith.

If you know that happens to the conspirators, then you know the outcome and Clements spares readers nothing. But it’s in the other plot, that surrounding Kat and the death of her husband, one of the wealthiest men in England that provides the real mystery and meat of the story. As is usual, nothing is as it seems and, in proving Kat’s innocence, Shakespeare runs the risk of exposing a much greater plot, one that those in power will do anything to protect…

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Book Review: The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

Having read many of Alison Weir’s non-fiction books and thoroughly enjoying her fictive spin on the early years of Elizabeth Ist, I was looking forward to reading The Marriage GaThe Marriage Gameme, which covers the years Elizabeth was upon the English throne.

Taking as its main focus Elizabeth’s Privy Council’s and, indeed, the entire Parliament and country’s obsession with her need to get married and produce an heir, and the queen’s attempts to fob them off through procrastination, broken promises, assurances and games as it’s premise, the novel also highlights the steamy and stormy relationship between Elizabeth and her favourite courtier, Robert Dudley.

It’s clear that Weir knows her history. As her wonderful non-fiction books attest (The Life of Elizabeth I and The Princes in the Tower are my favourites), she uses her formidable understanding of Elizabethan politics and times to infuse the novel with veritas, even using direct speech from reports and letters of the times and known events to add grist to her marriage mill. The reader is drawn into Elizabeth’s world, its male-dominated court and the religious and global politics that threaten and sustain its power. A constant balancing act is required (by the author, reader and the characters) which means the queen and her council must be both vigilant and yet warm towards the various international diplomats that populate the court – offering salves to wounded pride, playing various proposals and dignitaries off against each other and trying to second guess intentions.

Mercurial and demanding, Elizabeth is the heart and soul of this story, as indeed she was of the times (they’re not recalled as the Elizabethan period for no reason). Yet, it’s hard to like this vain queen or the men who surround her. Self-interest is paramount and weasel words are currency.

We know from history that Elizabeth was a difficult and selfish woman who would readily strike those who displeased her, send people to the tower for marrying without permission (even those without royal blood) and who saw most other women as potential competition and so banned them from court. She struggled with ageing (in that, she was very like many modern women, which reveals struggling with growing older isn’t necessarily a contemporary preoccupation) and was concerned not be redundant. Encouraging flattery, she also doled it out and was a flirt par excellence, even as an older woman – these are all facts.

While the queen’s relationship with Dudley, who she later made the Earl of Leicester, is also well documented, in this novel, Weir delves into the emotional and physical bonds that both connect the pair and drive them apart. From the first days of Elizabeth’s rule to Dudley’s death, she fictively explores their tempestuous and imbalanced relationship.

Yet, for all the veracity of this book and the fine writing, the weaving of fact and fiction, the hardest thing for the reader is the undeniable reality that the lead character, good Queen Bess, is an outright bitch. She is not sympathetic or kind, but narcissistic, wilful, a bully, and manipulative. She uses people for her own ends, is masterful with words and wields them as weapons to wound and control and contrive outcomes she desires. Though this may have been politic and Elizabeth’s only means of asserting authority and influence, it works better in non-fiction than fiction where what’s being told is essentially both a love story and an anti-love story. Likewise, Dudley is a dud who obeys his monarch at the expense of dignity, self-respect and, in the end, his family. History is kinder to these pair than this book, that’s for certes!

So, while I enjoyed Weir’s version – and for me the second half of the book was better than the first – I prefer the way history books recall Elizabeth – as a potent political force, faults and all – than this particular piece of (romantic?) fiction.

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Book Review: The Watchers, by Stephen Alford

Sent The Watchers, A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth Ist,  by the publishers, I really looked forward to reading what’s ostensibly a behind the scenes account of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign but from the point of view of the “watchers”: that is, reporters, listeners, spies – the men whose speciality was espionage. Elizabethan times, it turns out, are notorious for their extensive use of spies and networks, all of which were established to protect England and ensure the queen’s successful reign. As Alford writes in the introduction, while Elizabeth and her council worked hard to maintain “clever and persuasive projections of political stability, empire, self-confidence and national myth” there was, in fact, “a darker story… set against a Europe divided and oppressed by religious conflict, cThe Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth Iivil war and the ambitions of kings and princes.”

Taking the crown after her half-sister “Bloody Mary” tried to purge the Protestant stain, and trying to stabilise an England divided by religious schism and rapidly changing succession, Elizabeth’s job was not easy. Declaring England as Protestant, but claiming that Catholicism would be tolerated, Elizabeth nonetheless was acutely aware of how precarious her position as ruler and religious head of a reeling nation was. Plots to declare her rule invalid, assassination attempts, never mind trying to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne abounded. Then there was the job of trying to find Elizabeth a suitable husband, all of which meant that though the kingdom flourished in terms of exploration, the humanities and arts, there was also a seething underbelly that threatened to erupt and destroy everything at any time. The greatest threat was that of the Catholics who, discontent with Elizabeth’s heretical leadership and perceiving it as ungodly, sought to rid themselves of Henry VIII’s daughter and restore the “true religion”. Working from within their homeland, their overseas networks were extensive, travelling across Europe and involving some of the most powerful people abroad as well.

The stage is thus set for espionage, betrayal, treason, propaganda, secrets, torture, faith, martyrdom and lies all of which Sir Francis Walsingham and his successors sought to control.

Carefully researched and very well-written, this book is an eye-opener that also makes the mind boggle. The lengths to which various individuals would go to inveigle themselves into (Catholic) families or communities in order to uncover plots and treasons were phenomenal. Conspirators were discovered frequently, many from noble families. The Throckmorton plot was one of the most famous and this is covered in detail throughout the book. Fascinating in its complexity and the degree of commitment and sacrifice believers were ready to make, uncovering it was to prove an even greater triumph.

The book goes onto explore the stories, derring-do, successes and failures of many spies and traitors, how far they were willing to go (disguise, denying their identities for long periods, sacrificing family and a “normal” life for little reward) and from these we also learn how disposed Walsingham and his men were to use torture to uncover secrets and plots and how brutal their interrogation methods were. Some of the spies, or intelligencers, were gentleman and even poets, others were criminals, but many were chameleons, able to shift, camouflage themselves and change with subtlety. There was William Parry, Thomas Phelippes, Gilbery Gifford, Chrales Sledd, Sir Robert Cecil, Burghley, simply to name a few (forgive my memory) – names both known and unknown to history buffs. Perhaps, for those names less familiar, it’s testimony to how well they performed their roles – they disappeared not simply into the woodwork, but became lost in the pages of history and time until Alford recovers them. Uncovering the plots and deeds of desperate men, these watchers brought many to trial and death and, in doing so, ensured Elizabeth’s long reign.

Utilising surviving records, Alford has done an amazing job and recreated in detail a tumultuous but fascinating period. Almost akin to a Renaissance version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I found this book fascinating, challenging (to keep track of the different names and roles), but also a wonderful insight into what occurs behind the doors, under the tables and in the shadows and whispers of a colourful and deceptively confidant queen’s reign. Like an ice-berg, it was the seven-eights we didn’t see that ensured the topmost part remained afloat. Alford has given us access to that which we don’t normally witness and exposed the intricacy and deadly seriousness of spying in Elizabethan times.

A great read for history buffs, writers, anyone who loves tales of espionage and appreciates solid research delivered in an entertaining and engaging manner.



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