SOVEREIGN
C.J. Sansom

 


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Pan Macmillan, this edition May, 2007
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

It is 1542 and, armed with the Seal of Archbishop Cranmer, lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Barak have arrived in the city of York to assist with pleas to the King. King Henry VIII is making a Progress to the North, a hastily arranged event to assert his sovereignty over the area, which is rife with unrest and discontent. Matthew isn't exactly relishing this task, but when asked by someone with the ear of the King, refusal can be harmful to good health.

Matthew finds York to be a cold, damp, sullen place, its people resentful of “southrons”. The Progress isn't sticking to schedule, subject to the whims of the increasingly volatile King. A last minute change in schedule is not to be taken lightly. For this progress the King has a retinue of some three thousand: courtiers, soldiers, tradespeople, artesans, all of whom have to be fed and accommodated.

Matthew has barely settled into his York lodgings when the mysterious death of a Master Glazier, and Matthew's discovery of a puzzle box containing documents, plunge him into the middle of dangerous political intrigue.

If you think the machinations of modern-day politicans are convoluted, they have nothing on those during the time of Henry VIII. Allegiances old and new, secrets, lies, conspiracies, betrayals abound. The aim of the game is to win favour. Favour brings with it power and money. Hard won, but easily lost.

As Matthew is all too keenly aware, this is a time when one wrong word can cost you your head. He has to tip-toe his way through this morass, carefully avoiding old enemies such as Sir Richard Rich and trying to avoid making new ones. He is working hard on the former, but clearly hasn't succeeded in the latter. Someone thinks Matthew knows too much and wants him out of the way.

Matthew Shardlake is one of crime fiction's most unlikely heroes. He is a hunchback, subject to the mockery and superstitions of a society that doesn't really accept him. He isn't brave in any conventional sense, but has a quality all too rare in Tudor England. Matthew has integrity and the courage of his convictions. It can make him a very dangerous man.

SOVEREIGN is not just a murder mystery. It is a history lesson about life in Tudor England. Author C. J. Sansom's descriptions of the sights, sounds and even smells encountered by Matthew evoke a landscape as vivid and real as any modern-day image. I found myself effortlessly transported back to 1541, a period I knew much less about before reading SOVEREIGN and one about which I'd like to learn more.

Sansom has also succeeded once more in achieving that most difficult of feats in historical crime-fiction: informing the reader about the times without any negative impact on the plot. At just over 660 pages, SOVEREIGN requires some commitment to read, but it's a commitment that is rewarding and worth making.

May 2007 review originally published on Murder & Mayhem

 

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