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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The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is an author whose work I not only thoroughly enjoy but wait with great impatience for her next book to appear. Her historical works of fiction, which take an intimate look at the lives of often overlooked as secondary women – those behind, beside and under the throne, if you like, are fascinating. Some I like better than others but this latest, The Taming of the Queen, ranks (in my very humble opinion) among the best.

25106926This time her subject is Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen and already, at the age of 30, twice widowed. Despite loving another man, Thomas Seymour, when Kateryn is offered the toxic chalice of becoming Henry’s next wife, like any woman Hnery sets his sights upon, she has no choice but to accept.

Dismayed at how her future appears to be unfolding as the sixth wife to an arrogant, spoilt and morbidly obese man – a serial killer by any other name – with a propensity to change wives, policies, friendships and even faith as one does underclothes, she determines to make the best of things, even if it means stifling her feelings for Thomas.

Uniting the fractured Tudor family is no easy task and yet she undertakes this, feeling sorry for Henry’s estranged daughters from his earlier marriages (Mary and Elizabeth) and his over-protected son, Edward. With no real political or religious convictions, she soon learns that a neutral position, while safe, will not do and sets about to not only educate herself in these matters, but form a very important study circle at the heart of the court, something Henry initially indulges.

Clever, Kateryn is soon writing her own religious tracts and debating fiercely with some of the finest minds of the time and those she trusts, all the while her eyes and mind are also focussed on not displeasing her mercurial and hot-tempered husband. What Kateryn hasn’t bargained for is the machinations of those closest to Henry, those who don’t like the influence this wise and wonderful woman has over the sovereign and what this represents to them in terms of the power they currently wield.

All too soon, danger stalks Kateryn and the grim realisation that she might soon meet the fate of Anne Bolyen and Katherine Howard faces her.

Even knowing this period of history so well, I was spellbound by this book. The challenges Kateryn faces (no less having sex with her husband), the pride she must continuously swallow and what she does to both survive and with her dignity in tact is phenomenal. The tension is wonderfully built and the first person narrative aids this, breathing a different life into this era and this passionate, honourable woman about whom we know very little.

In this portrait of Kateryn Parr, Gregory has worked a particular kind of magic, recreating the era, representing Henry as the monster he surely must have been, yet also imbuing him with qualities and insecurities that somehow prevent him from being utterly detestable.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves history, Gregory’s work, or just a damn fine read.

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Book Review: Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

The MattheLamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)w Shardlake series of novels, about a hunchback lawyer practicing in the time of Henry VIII, are simply wonderful and this, the sixth in the series, does not disappoint.

After a horrible and explosive beginning, the story unfolds slowly but effortlessly, immersing the reader back in not only Henry VII’s final months, but also Shardlake’s life and law practice.

It’s autumn 1546, and King Henry, obese and quite disabled, is nearing death. Aware of this, the mercurial king, who forced his country from Catholicism and the yoke of Rome to Protestantism, dissolving the monasteries, claiming their vast wealth and punishing those who refused to acknowledge his supremacy over the new church, is once again undergoing an existential crisis. Vacillating between Popery and Protestantism, a struggle based on religious principles begins and those behind the throne with the greatest to win or lose begin to make their move. Henry may be dying, but he is powerful and vindictive, sending friends and foe to the Tower with ease, for if there’s one thing he can’t abide it’s those he perceives as disloyal, and keeping secrets is among the worst of sins.

When Protestant Queen Katherine discovers a book she’s written called Lamentation, and which describes her personal and Protestant religious beliefs, has been stolen, she is panic-stricken. Knowing her faith goes against that held by her husband and that there are those on his council plotting her downfall, the book could be the exact weapon they need. Keeping the book and its theft secret from the king, she summons Shardlake to her side and begs his help.

Unable to resist his queen, Shardlake knows discovering who has stolen the book will not only be difficult, but very, very dangerous. When bodies start to pile up, his greatest fears are realised, only the terrible threat to him and those he loves is yet to materialise…

This is a marvellous story that plunges you into late medieval London and doesn’t let you go. Sansom takes his time with the story, allowing it to time to evolve, walking the reader through the familiar and pungent streets of Shardlake’s neighbourhood and other parts of London, the cloisters of various palaces, or taking us on uncomfortable rides outside the city walls. We feel the hot breath of summer, the discomfort of the fabrics as they cling to sweaty limbs, the stink of the river, and the fear of darkness and those who lurk in the shadows, watching and waiting.

Evoking this period and the terror, suspicion and religious persecution that accompanied it, as well as the fight for supremacy in the court and kingdom, Sansom has written a wonderful historical and crime novel that nonetheless still manages to capture not only the era, but Shardlake’s personal life and his complex but kind and intelligent character.  Other characters are also beautifully drawn and we empathise with their efforts and troubles as well as enjoy their triumphs. A wonderful secondary narrative about two squabbling and vile siblings is also very well executed.

I was absorbed in this tale that on occasion made me gasp with horror and genuinely fear for characters. Without spoiling the story, the last pages of the novel were both an ending and beginning, but I sincerely hope we haven’t seen the last of Shardlake yet. The author’s notes at the end are also a marvellous read, revealing not only Sansom’s level of research, but his dedication to and passion for crafting a compelling tale.

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Book Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

I thoroughly enjoyed this revisioning of the early years of Catalina of Spain who would later be known as Catherine of Aragon, the long-suffering first wife of King Henry VIII. AnThe Constant Princess (The Tudor Court, #1) often silent and very religious presence in many fictive accounts, a woman who stood by Henry for over twenty-seven years before her marriage to him was ended in tumultuous circumstances, resulting in not just the rendering of her only living child to Henry, Mary, a bastard, but the over-turning of the Catholic faith in England, Catherine as a person remains an unknown quantity. She also tends to hover in the margins when it comes to Henry’s reign and his other wives and the fate that befell them, especially Anne Boleyn, the women who took Catherine’s throne and husband and whose daughter went on to become the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth 1st.

Well, Gregory sets about to change that, presenting readers with a delightful account of Catherine’s unconventional childhood, as the much-loved younger daughter of Isabelle and Philip of Spain. Possessed of bellicose parents whose ambitions were to conquer and claim lands and people, Catalina’s girlhood was spent in military encampments, always on the move until, finally, her parents settled. Though they tried to destroy the Moors and suborn them to their faith, they end up adopting many of the habits of those they try to oppress. Catalina carries an appreciation for the skills, hygiene, knowledge and artistry of the Moors and Islam her entire life.

Revelling in her privilege as a princess – the Infanta – Catalina is also raised to understand she is destined to be the Princess of Wales and eventually Queen of England and it is to Arthur, eldest son of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of England that she is betrothed. But this is no love match for, like many young noble women, Catalina is but a pawn in a long political game.

For those of you who don’t know the history of Catherine and Arthur and Henry – please read no further. For those of you who do, the book remains true to events, but offers readers of the period something more.

Arthur tragically dies after only a brief few months of marriage, and Catherine eventually becomes the wife of his younger brother, Henry. What Gregory does, is present the relationship between Catherine and Arthur in an interesting light – very different to other accounts both historical and fictive (though, as I inferred above, in many ways this period of Catherine’s life (let alone the figure of Arthur) is barely addressed by other writers except as a footnote).

After Arthur dies, Catherine loses her position at court and, in many ways, her identity as well and in a ruthless way determines to have both restored. From this point on in the novel, it could have been subtitled: “I Wanna Marry Harry”, so single of purpose was the young Infanta.

The story of Catherine’s patience, of the way she deals with hostile forces at court (mainly Henry’s grandmother and later, father) and how she eventually triumphs is wonderfully done.

Segueing from third person to first person point of view, we get that omniscient narration of events as well as personal and sometimes heart-breaking accounts. There were points at which the first-person parts grew repetitive and a bit tedious, but more often they offered insights into the emotional and psychological energy and passion of this remarkable woman.

Henry is also presented in a different light – as the selfish, bombastic and indulged king historians have long known he was.  Playing to his strengths and indulging his weaknesses (of which there are so many), pandering to her husband to get her own way, Catherine is presented as a strategist par excellence but one with a heart and a conflicted soul.

Capable, shrewd, loving and forgiving, one of the most affecting things about the novel is those of us familiar with her story know how it will end. Gregory does well to finish the book as she does and leave readers with a sense of satisfaction rather than desperation for the woman at its centre. You cannot help but love Catherine and loathe the forces that dealt her such a cruel blow and the people that ensured where and when it would land.

A fabulous read for lovers of history and a great story about a woman of substance.

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Book Review: The Winchester Goose by Judith Arnopp

This book took me completely by surprise. I’m still not sure what I expected when I first started reading, but it certainly wasn’t a tale that grippeThe Winchester Goosed me by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and clenched my heart with the other and refused to let go.

“Winchester Geese” was the collective name given to the prostitutes who worked in Southwark and Bankside in Medieval times, in an area or the liberty owned by the Bishop of Winchester. From these women and the places in which they lived, the bishop collected rents and hence a tidy earning. That a man of God made a living – or part of it – off women’s backs, turning a blind eye to their shocking conditions, illness, poverty, cruelty, and the enforced sexual slavery that some endured, and the brutality of their often brief lives and the lack of choice that led them to such a profession, while preaching against sin etc. was not lost on contemporaries or history. So, immediately, the title of this book intrigued me.

Set in Tudor times, during the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII, 1540, the book uses first person and, to commence, four different voices to tell a tale of love, lust, hope, marriage, desperation, loss and tragedy. The main protagonist is Winchester Goose, Joanie Toogood (great name) who, due to the death of her parents when young, gained responsibility for her two younger siblings turning to the oldest and only profession available to her as a single woman of a certain class. Big of heart, popular among locals and with oodles of common sense, Joanie is a delight. When she falls for the rather shady but young and dashing Francis Wareham, a gentleman who seems to stumble from bad choice to poorer ones, her life changes. But so does that of two other women from a completely different class who also encounter the dashing courtier: Evelyn Bourne and her sister Isabella.

Lovely young gentlewomen, they are brought to the Tudor court to join the maids serving Henry VIII’s new queen, Anna of Cleaves. Hoping their prospects for marriage will improve through exposure to the royal court and eligible bachelors and widowers, the young sisters could never have foreseen the way their lives were to be changed.

All four of the main characters, Joanie, Francis, Evelyn and Isabella are given voice in this novel and such different and compelling voices they have. The common denominator in their stories is Francis. As a reader, you think you see where these women’s relationships with handsome, swaggering Francis will lead, but nothing prepares us for the brutal and heart-wrenching reality.

Told in an uncompromising fashion, one that allows us to experience the lack of choice, the utter despair and injustice of women in certain positions during this time, the novel can make for bleak reading – only, despite the shocking events that unfold, it never falls into that dark trap, but allows hope and possibility to hover at the edges. Without sentimentality, it explores the heights and depths to which choices – good and bad – can lead, and how all it takes is one chance, one generous act of faith in fellow humans to bring about transformation.

Evocative and moving, the period is also brutally and wonderfully drawn. I really enjoyed the fact that the court and the large figures that people in it such as King Henry, Anna, Katherine and the courtiers, were mere backdrops to a passionate and searing tale of ordinary folk.

Readers of historical fiction, romance and just a damn fine book will love this. Looking forward to reading more of Judith Arnopp.

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