Sovereign [London: Macmillan, 2006] is book three of the now six-book Shardlake series from the enterprising pen of C J Sansom and it matches up in every way to the others I have read. I still have to get through five and six but I have a feeling I shall do so later this year. I’m hooked. Shardlake’s death-defying adventures are more than just an antidote for those still waiting for Hilary Mantel’s third volume about which I see no convincing rumours on the web.
This novel takes lawyer Matthew Shardlake north to York on a mission for Archbishop Cranmer. Having retreated prudently from the public eye when his previous ‘employer’ Thomas Cromwell got the chop in both senses of the word, he is reluctantly and rather deviously called back into service and sent to keep an eye on a rebellious prisoner who is to be shipped back to the Tower of London for questioning. The irony, that the prisoner is to be kept in good health so that he can be tortured by experts, is not lost on Shardlake and his gruff, bluff and lusty young assistant Jack Barack. Meanwhile, the Royal Progress of Henry VIII and his new, fifth Queen Catherine Howard is ploughing north in a move to impress, awe and cow rebellious northerners.
Right from the outset, Shardlake walks into trouble. He is nearly knocked down by a runaway carthorse that has been startled by the killing of its glazier owner who tumbles fatally onto large shards of glass. Shardlake catches his ambiguous last words. With all that is going on to prepare York for the King’s arrival, Shardlake is told to investigate the death. And all of that by page 70 of some 570 very turnable pages. Shardlake’s old enemies, Sir Richard Rich and the barrister Bealknap have useful roles to play and make life even harder for him.
It does not underestimate Sansom’s skill as a writer to say that he engineers dramatic turns of events in every chapter; forty-eight plus an Epilogue; and that he scatters clues and red herrings broadcast on almost every page because it is very cleverly done and the writing is crisp and gripping. By now, however, every time Shardlake goes out alone in the dark on a rainy night the reader knows he is going to find trouble and mortal danger. But he’s Shardlake and the writer is Sansom so he does it again and again and lives to tell the tale.
Sansom adds a page or two of acknowledgement and historical background at the end of his books that show how closely he models the main events on what actually happened five hundred years ago and even spells out where he has invented and where not. What he reveals, in fact, is that base motives and other aspects of human nature have not changed at all over the centuries.
Now then, Hilary, let’s have it!