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

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s a time of turmoil in England, as Henry VIII has declared himself absolute head of the Church, and his minister Thomas Cromwell wields much power. One of his commissioners, sent to a monastery, is murdered and Cromwell sends the lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

The author has impeccable historical credentials, and the world that he creates is very believable. The people live in fear as Reform is in full swing and they are afraid of saying the wrong thing in sight of the wrong person. Matthew is an idealist, and a bit of a zealot, believing full well in the new ways. His investigations, however, reveal more than he would like, and his journey is very much the core of the book. The murder mystery is interesting; in many ways a classic format, as the monastery is isolated, and it’s midwinter, meaning that it must have been someone from the inside that carried it out, and Shardlake has to investigate the histories of all the senior monks, many of whom have their own secrets to hide. Shardlake’s assistant, the young Mark Poer, is as idealistic as his master, but in a different way. He sees the corruption at the heart of the regime, and despises it, leading to conflict between the two men.

The weakest part of the book for me were the religious aspects. As someone who isn’t a believer, and who never grew up in the Christian tradition, the question around the English Reformation has always seemed to me to be more about Henry’s desire to chase some flesh than anything substantial in doctrine. I found the arguments between Shardlake and the monks tedious, and the former mostly seemed to use his position as Cromwell’s commissioner to bully and harass the monks with, not that I had much sympathy for many of them – the corruption of the monasteries was no myth.

The most sympathetic of the inhabitants of the monastery are the outsiders: Brother Guy, the Spanish Moor who is their physician; his assistant Alice, a young women among men whose vow of chastity isn’t as always strong as it should be; and Brother Gabriel, a gay man who finds his passions hard to control. I was also surprised by how accepting the others were about that last. Don’t get me wrong, they thought it was awful, but also that it was something that just happened, sometimes.

So overall, a well-written, and well-researched historical crime story. The resolution to the mystery did depend on knowledge that was hidden from the reader, I’m not sure if we could have guessed it before the reveal, or if that’s just my inability to spot a twist coming. I wasn’t a fan of the religious aspects, but I liked both the history and the crime aspects of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330450799
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2007

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