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Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Shardlake is an engaging hero, and Sansom a fine writer. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

If there is a gold standard for writers of historical fiction, then I would say C J Sansom comes close to it. He never uses history as a mere backdrop for swashbuckling or ripping the odd bodice, but foregrounds the past. That’s not as easy as it sounds: modern sensibilities and political correctness do not always sit easily with historical events, so it can be a tricky feat to pull off.

Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series has taken us through the reign of Henry VIII, starting in 1537 and the dissolution of the monasteries. We are now in 1549, the era of Edward VI and Protector Somerset and a time of serious discontent and rebellion in England. The hunchback lawyer Shardlake has made powerful enemies over the past six books, but he still has the patronage of Princess Elizabeth, though her position is far from secure. So discretion is all.

When a distant Boleyn relative of the Princess is accused of the murder of his wife in Norwich, Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas are sent off to Norfolk to investigate, and, if possible, solve the mystery without making waves. But the summer of 1549 explodes into Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk and other religious and peasant uprisings across England, and Shardlake finds himself caught up in momentous events, which will inevitably come to a violent and tragic conclusion.

Sharlake, as always, can see both sides of any question and is a crusader for justice. So he has sympathy with the aims of the rebels, even if not always for their methods. Entangled in the rebellion, he is also still trying to solve his murder case, and, involved on two fronts, he makes new enemies, doubly dangerous in lawless times.

Shardlake is an engaging hero, and Sansom a fine writer. Perhaps Tombland, at 800 pages plus an informative historical essay, is longer than it needs to be, and unusually I found the murder investigation dragging a little before we got on to the brilliantly recreated and described rebellion, but it was good to be back in the company of Shardlake and his usual team of helpers. Long may he continue.

Tombland is published by Mantle. ISBN 978-1-4472-8449-9 - Margaret von Klemperer