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 Vizard Mask by Diana Norman

imgres-2When I first started reading this long book, The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. By the time I reached the 20% mark on my Kindle, I didn’t want it to end – so captivating was the story. The reason for my initial reaction was a combination of the style of writing (which is rich if not dense in detail) and the heroine, a Puritan named Penitence Hurd who, frankly, I couldn’t warm to at all. Not at first. Then she gripped my heart and didn’t let go…

Forced to leave her home in a fledgling colony in America and travel to London to find her Aunt, a woman whose existence her devout family denies, Penitence arrives on English soil the same day as the plague. Discovering her Aunt lives in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, a den of inequity and poverty outside the city walls, Penitence manages to find her house only to learn not only is her Aunt likely dead, but her abode is actually a whore house. The woman in charge, a formidable and harsh woman known has “her Ladyship” takes in the shocked and confused Penitence, protecting her from the usual work of the women under her roof. Much to the other women’s chagrin, Pen is given other duties, and proceeds to cast dire judgements and disapproval on all who come her way as she desperately tries to reconcile her Puritan beliefs with this shocking, disgusting and inappropriate place she has come to.

When the plague attacks in force, Pen finds not only her beliefs challenged, but also her faith in humanity restored and broken over and over. Humbled by what she witnesses, devastated by the losses the disease wreaks, Pen finds allies and enemies in unlikely places. But this is just the beginning of the incredible transformation this young woman must undergo if she is to survive, not just illness, disease, the unwanted attention of lecherous men, and the injustices heaped upon women, but Restoration London.

King-charles-ii-king-charles-ii-25010100-333-400The days of the Republic are over; Cromwell is dead and Charles II is back on the throne and determined not to waste a day or a woman if he can help it. Theatre is alive and well, women are on stage, and the arts generally are flourishing. The seeking of pleasure is the goal of the classes that can and the envy of those who cannot. Religious dissent bubbles away and gossip and politics are never far from anyone’s minds or lips. If it’s not true, then it will be made up and, as she rises up the ranks of London Society, Pen finds how hurtful and damaging this type of talk and the scandal in its wake can be.

I don’t want to say too much more about this book for fear of spoiling it or not doing it justice. It is stunning. An epic in every sense, it slowly and carefully introduces the reader to this uptight and devout young woman and with flashbacks to her past in the Americas, allows us to come to get to know, accept and finally love Pen and who she becomes. Valiant, loyal, smart and with a difficulty she overcomes with help, Pen is a heroine for any age.

Against a backdrop of Charles II’s reign and beyond; the plague, Great Fire, death of a king, terrible war, religious discord and the rise of another king, his fall and the final reclamation of the throne by William and Mary, we follow Pen’s life and that of those who enter her orbit throughout one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods of English history.

Norman, once a journalist and renown for her historical accuracy has done an amazing job of weaving fiction and fact. Attributing actions and words to her (based on real-life) characters that were actually said by them, recreating known events but also humanising them, this book is so hard to put down. Not only that, but the character of Pen is based on a real life figure as well (I won’t reveal), whose early years are unknown, allowing Norman to colour them in fantastical and vivid detail. Pen is brought to life in spectacular and heart-breaking ways, as is the city she finds herself in and the other places she dwells in as well.

As always with this type of female-centred historical fiction, it’s hard for modern readers to stomach what happened to women in these eras. The notion of women being objects and chattels are lived and shocking experiences for which the women had no recourse. Norman does a terrific job of relaying not only how the women coped with this, but exploring those who were complicit in their subordination and those who learned ways to rise above it. She also portrays how men were also confined but empowered by the rigid gender roles and how both sexes suffered (and some thrived) as a consequence. Norman also offers an unforgiving portrait of class differences as well as prejudices.

tumblr_lv08b8NVwL1qbohcko1_500But it’s not all suffering and there are some fabulous moments in this book that allow your heart to soar, while others make your pulse quicken with anxiety. Likewise, the language I at first found a bit intense (mainly because Pen has a habit of quoting the Bible so much) became one of the joys of the book. Norman’s turn of phrase, her ability to capture a sensation, a thought, a feeling as well as physical descriptions are just magical and poetical.

There are parts that are slow, but these are the times when Norman allows us breathing space and the opportunity to get to know not just the fascinating and flawed people populating her novel and the period – from kings to playwrights to printers and farmers and soldiers, but the places as well; her descriptions are magnificent and place you firmly in the moment.

So, far from casting the book aside, I immersed myself in it. Read concurrently with Antonia Fraser’s biography of King Charles II, I can attest to the level of research (as well as other books I am reading on the period) and am in awe of Norman’s ability to weave fact and fiction so seamlessly and entertainingly.

I confess, like so many others, I fell in love with the unlikely heroine with the debilitating stutter. She captured my heart, as has Norman’s writing. I cannot wait to explore her other books, including those she wrote under a different pen name. That she died in 2011 was a great loss to literature and lovers of history and historical fiction. I hope someone penned her a deserving epitaph and I am so grateful we continue to gain pleasure from her wonderful imagination and research.

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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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Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney

imgresThe second book in the David Becket and Simon Ames series, Unicorn’s Blood is a simply wonderful tale that centres around an incriminating diary and death-bed confession that Elizabeth First wrote in a diary with a unicorn on the front when only a teenager, and which was stolen from beneath her pillow.

Like the first book, Firedrake’s Eye, this novel revels in the detail of London of the period – whether its navigating the ice-bound Thames, emptying the nightsoil buckets in the palace, enduring the pillory in a prison yard or fleeing through stinking streets, this London is one you can live and breath with each and every character. Finney’s prose is rich and alive and dances off the page.

The political machinations of those wishing to control the queen and the outcome of the long investigation into Mary, Queen of Scots, and her loyalty to the English throne form the background to this book that, interestingly, has as an omniscient narrator, the Virgin Mary. Such an original touch and done so well.

While Becket and Ames feature in the narrative, their roles take a backseat to the diary itself and Thomasina, the Queen’s dwarf and fool who is commissioned to search for the diary and to do so is forced to disguise herself and enter places she might never be able to leave. Also looking for the diary, but with very different intentions, is a major figure in the Queen’s court. If the tome lands in his hand, then England will never be the same again.

The reality for women in this period, especially those who found once Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries that their home and livelihood were stolen, is grim, as is the fate of those who capitulate to bodily desires and find themselves with child – in many ways, a theme of this novel. From former nuns, to laundresses, to the women of the bedchamber, to Elizabeth herself, we’re given a glimpse into female desire and consequences and the overt display of male power and authority and how this was achieved most often at women’s expense.

This is a rollicking read that doesn’t require its sequel for understanding or pleasure – it’s a terrific stand-alone as well. It’s a nail-biting and wonderful weaving of fact with speculative fiction and extraordinary at every level.

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Book Review: Roses Have Thorns by Sandra Byrd

Really enjoyedRoses Have Thorns: A Novel of Elizabeth I (Ladies in Waiting #3) this novel about real-life lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth the First, the Swedish Elin (Helena) von Snakenborg. Travelling with her queen to the court of the English ruler, we first meet Elin when her fiancé has abandoned her for her sister, her dowry has been spent, and she in a conflicted rather than heartbroken state as she makes the dangerous and long voyage from her home in Sweden to England.

Beautiful, smart and not overwhelmed by English court politics and games and understanding she has little to return home to, Elin is given a position at Elizabeth’s side. Earning the Queen’s trust and friendship, she is rewarded with marriage to the highest noble in the land, and becomes the Marchioness of Northampton – second only to the queen. Happy in her relationship, she also enjoys serving a ruler who demands the utmost loyalty from her woman and men, regardless of the personal cost.

Surrounded by Catholic traitors and those who plot to take her throne near and far, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth is both cautious and capricious and Byrd tries to capture the tension, beauty and fierce intellectualism and creativity of Elizabeth’s reign, using Helena (as she’s now called) as the lens through which to view it.

When her first husband dies and Helena remarries someone of much lower station, however, she is forced to choose, not just between her heart and her head, but between her loyalty to the throne and the man she loves.

Evoking the era, the personalities and the politics, the book works hard to be historically accurate but, sometimes, I felt as a reader is was at the expense of story. My favourite bits were those with Helena and her beaus, when fiction rather than fact were apparent. Byrd quotes from Elizabeth’s own correspondence as well as known documents of the time, so careful is she to be true to history, yet, sometimes, history drowns out narrative, turns the characters into two-dimensional beings rather than passionate (or not) living breathing beings with whom we feel invested. The use of the quotes (or words straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak) also make the book feel more like a non-fiction read at times than one that uses history as a backdrop to a wonderful story.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it very much and can recommend to lovers of history and especially, the Tudor period.

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