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: Treachery by S.J. Parris

The fourth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Treachery, takes place in Plymouth, on the eve of Sir Francis Drake’s departure to harass Spanish ports. Accompanying his friend, Sir Phillip Sidney, who is tasked by the queen with bringing the exiled Portuguese ruler safely to London, Bruno, as readers have come to expect, stumbles into murder, conspiracies and, as the title suggests, treachery. Upon his arrival, Bruno learns that one of Drake’s officers has committed suicide, though after one look at the body, Bruno is able to confirm Drake’s suspicions, that his man didn’t take his own life, but was brutally murdered. Sidney (who has his own selfish reasons for wanting to earn the gratitude of Drake) quickly offers Bruno’s services to track down the killer.

Amid the grubby, bustling port town of Plymouth, more than one conspiracy emerges and Bruno meets some unpleasant people from his past – as does Drake – men intent on revenge at all costs. Hounded, hunted, second-guessed, watched, Bruno works against time and the evil intentions of others, all the while keeping an amorous woman at arm’s length and trying to discovery the mysteries of yet another heretical book.

Parris’s evocation of the time and place is terrific. For regular readers of the series, Bruno is such a fully realised character and the more you see him in action, the more you appreciate his humour, learning and (mostly) abundance of common sense. Sidney is given more time in this novel and his character is given the opportunity to, well, not shine, let’s say show its strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, one of the heroes of the Renaissance, Sir Francis Drake, is well drawn.


In terms of plot, the books follow a pattern: Bruno encounters death, bodies and plots and seeks to solve the conundrums they raise and offset the danger they pose to himself and others. Risking life and limb, he moves or blunders from clue to clue, being attracted to a woman, finally uncovering the identity of the killer/plot and saving the day (but not without a body count and a few victims). I don’t mind the fact that as a reader, I sort of know what’s going to happen. There’s a particular pleasure in knowing the rhythms and cadences of a series and part of the delight, even when you pick the identity of the antagonist (as I did early in this book), is discovering how the author uncoils the story. What Parris does very well is the interior life and motivation of characters, particularly Bruno and this is never predictable except in ways that ring true with the overall narrative arc and character development.

There are many twists and wrong turns in this novel as well as sub-plots and minor characters which all work to feature Bruno’s particular skills and attractions. Far more than the other novels, in Treachery, Bruno becomes a sort of Renaissance super-hero – sans costume – as faster than a speeding bullet from a blunderbuss and more powerful than a horse drawn carriage, he risks himself physically and in astonishing and dangerous situations again and again. Being a philosopher has never been so deadly or thrilling. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief, but not your reading pleasure.

A wonderful addition to a really good series.


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