I've been off the radar for a while, most of the time on holiday on the Greek island of Kefalonia where Ulysses apparently came from. And in fact where part of my family apparently came from, though we're going back some three hundred or so years. I had visualised myself lying on the beach reading, but in fact that didn't happen as the weather, though pretty warm, was also rather variable and I didn't end up lying on any beaches at all. But I did read, needless to say. I'd decided to treat myself to a book at the airport, and wanted it to be something big (in size rather than import) and something I might not otherwise have read. I'd been hearing a lot lately about CJ Sansom's Shardlake series, and had become especially curious after reading Adele Geras' review of the latest one, Lamentation, in Shiny 4. Adele described that novel as 'stunning in its scope, its intelligence and its humanity'. Phew -- I definitely needed to read Sansom.
Now as you may know, this is a series, of which Lamentation is the sixth and Revelation the fourth. Why didn't I start at the beginning, you may ask? Simply because Dissolution, the first novel, is a rather slimmer book than the ones that followed, and as I said, I wanted a big book. I'd been assured that it didn't matter if I plunged in wherever I chose in the series, and I think this is true, though of course you do then want to go back and start at the beginning, and no doubt I shall be doing that. But you probably want to know what I thought -- did the novel measure up to the massive build up?
I wish I could say a wholehearted yes. I certainly did enjoy it, though not in that obsessive way that sometimes happens when you simply cannot wait to pick a book up and go on reading it. This didn't happen, but I did get caught up in the story increasingly, and didn't guess the identity of the person who was perpetrating the terrible crimes at the centre of the story, all to the good.
In case you don't know this series, which is set at the time of Henry VIII, the main protagonist is a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. He once worked for Thomas Cromwell (we all know who he was, of course), but now is in business on his own account. In this novel, he is seeking to solve a series of appalling murders, which he quickly realises are the work of a religious fanatic, since they are based on the horrific prophecies of the Biblical Book of Revelation. All very exciting, in the way of any crime novel. But of course what sets this apart is the historical background, which I did find really fascinating. A helpful map of Tudor London is included, and -- especially if, like me, you know London really well -- it is a great eye-opener to read of Shardlake riding through the muddy fields of Westminster, for example. The religious conflicts of the era, which really form the heart of the story, come vividly to life -- the problems that have arisen from Henry's dissolution of the monasteries, the expelled monks unable to know what to do with their lives, the dangers of the new strict protestant sects who preach eternal damnation with no possibility of being saved. There's so much of interest here, including 16th century legal and medical practices, attitudes to insanity, and just the minutiae of everyday life. And of course there's Henry VIII, who doesn't put in an appearance but who nevertheless hangs over the story -- having disposed of his fifth wife he is seeking to marry Catherine Parr, who is not very willing, perhaps because the king is in failing health, or perhaps because her reformist beliefs are in conflict with his wavering allegiance to the Catholicism he has supposedly thrown out.
So what didn't I like? I think my quibble was the way the dialogue seemed to swing between Tudor-ish English and very modern usage. Of course this is always going to be a problem when you set a book in the distant past, and one which one of my favourite authors, Ariana Franklin, managed to deal with superbly. I found some of Sansom's way of doing it grated with me a bit. But I think in the overall picture this isn't really such a problem. Certainly I'm finding myself curious to read the rest of the series, and to get to know Shardlake and his companions better. So no doubt you'll be hearing more from me on all this in the future.