It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers it has ever seen. And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: dissolution.
But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell's commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes...
I have had my eye on the Shardlake novels for a little while, beginning with Dissolution - I greatly enjoy historical novels that do more than simply chronicle the events of the time, and murder mystery seemed to fit the bill! Having turned the first page, I found myself instantly caught up in the tale about Matthew Shardlake, gripped by the tight plot and realistic characters.
Sansom writes both lyrically and tautly, with few missteps. The descriptions of the monastery, and Shardlake being trapped within while on the hunt for a killer as snow spirals down outside, felt claustrophobic. Sansom increased the tension and the feeling of terror as the tale unfolded - every character was a source of suspicion, and I was constantly on the hunt for whodunnit.
I loved the way that the historical details were added to the story, woven around the main thrust of the plot. Discussions about Machiavelli, who had just published his novel; marvelling over the double entry being employed by the monks as a new initiative; the new nursing techniques. Sansom made it a joy to find these little gems, which were not the focus of the book, as I have found in other historical novels.
Sansom's characterisation was also very effective - Matthew Shardlake, in particular, is a very realistic character that I empathised with greatly. He is compassionate and clever, but also has many foibles. He sometimes speaks too sharply, and his self-esteem is non-existent. Most of the monks were given three dimensional personalities, with only a couple suffering from weak characterisation.
One flaw I did find (with both characterisation/dialogue) was that many of the characters spoke in a similar fashion with little to differentiate them, which made it hard to follow who was saying what in a conversation that lasted a few pages and where Sansom did not say explicitly who was talking.
I also found Sansom a little too knowing at times, with some of the concepts or thoughts he put into his character's dialogue: "But I fear without the universal church to bind us together, a day will come in this land when even belief in God will be gone. Money alone will be worshipped, and the nation, of course."
C. J. Sansom has brought to life an extremely turbulent period in English history, showcasing the politics and the fear experienced by the common people as they came to terms with the new laws. This is an incredibly strong novel, with an entertaining mystery to be solved by vibrant and realistic characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely be picking up more novels about Matthew Shardlake.
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