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.