BooksOfTheMoon

Dark Fire (Shardlake Series)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s 1540 and Matthew Shardlake finds himself defending a teenage girl accused of the murder of her young cousin. This act brings him back to the attention of Thomas Cromwell, who commissions Shardlake to find two missing men, who claim to have the secret of Greek Fire (an ancient incendiary weapon used by the Byzantines; something like napalm), before a promised demonstration before the king in a fortnight. As Shardlake delves into the matter, he finds himself getting tangled deeper into a conspiracy that leads to the highest levels of society.

When we first met Matthew Shardlake, in Dissolution, he was fervent reformer (sorry, Reformer), with the zeal of breaking away from the Catholic church running through him. The events of that book got shot of that and while he doesn’t wish for a return to Rome, he sees the terrible things that Cromwell has done in the name of Reform and finds it wanting.

I was hoping that the theological arguments would have been left behind in the first book, but they weren’t. For all that the theology is conjoined with politics (when is it not?), I find it a fundamentally uninteresting discussion – the more so when it so deeply affects people. Shardlake’s friend and fellow barrister loses his job because he disagrees with the currently ascendant Duke of Norfolk on the matter, and he got off lightly: others are burned at the stake.

I kept wondering why I didn’t find this as annoying when I read the Baroque Cycle a few months ago, and although the faith of the monarch was pivotal to events there, it didn’t drive the rest of the plot. Also, at that point, state killing over theology was mostly done. It was pure politics and machinations, whereas in this period, a hundred years before the Enlightenment, a difference of theology leads directly to barbaric deaths. I just find that distasteful, and not something I want to read about, even indirectly.

The plot regarding Greek Fire is quite interesting although since we know that Europeans didn’t have it, we know it’s somehow going to not be a thing. The solution to that is pretty neat and works well. The other plot, with the accused girl, is also pretty interesting. Once again, we’re reminded about how bad prison conditions were, and how badly people with mental health problems were treated in the period.

After being abandoned by his assistant in the last book, this time Shardlake is saddled with one – Cromwell has Jack Barak work on the case with Shardlake. And Barak is not an easy character to like. He’s rude, opinionated and often ill-informed. But the author goes to lengths to soften those edges, pointing out that his bluster is often to hide his feelings. Maybe, but he’s still very often, as he likes to call almost everyone he meets, an arsehole.

So an overall good mystery, and I did learn something I hadn’t known before about the Duke of Norfolk and his manipulation of the king into marrying Catherine Howard. Since I was finding myself checking how much more book I still had to go, I still don’t think I’ll read any more of the series though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781743030875

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