So, this technically wasn’t the next book on my list. The next book on my list was another volume of poetry, and this time a HUGE one. So I thought I’d treat myself to some lovely prose instead.
I don’t usually have so much poetry all at once to read. It pops up here and there on my list, and as I work through it, it’s the poetry books that tend to be the hardest to find (bearing in mind that I’m in Germany and our beloved British Book Shop has vanished possibly forever???). When I go home to visit family I tend to look in bookshops for anything I’ve skipped, but even there the poetry selections tend to be pretty thin on the ground. You get the big old names – Wordsworth, Yeats, that crowd – and then you get a smattering of contemporary and more modern poets – Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes – and then poetry compilations based on themes like Love, Poems To Make You Cry, Specific Family Members, Love, and Love. The poets on my list seem to have fallen right through the cracks, and it’s not really any wonder I hadn’t heard of almost all of them before their obituaries appeared in the Guardian. So the books I’ve had to skip each year end up on my Christmas list, and become my new year’s reading. And that is why I read so much poetry in January.
Well anyway, this isn’t about that. This is about a book series that I love unconditionally, so there’s a warning for anyone who’s expecting me to be even vaguely unbiased. Also, this is the latest book in the series, so expect spoilers. I’ll keep them as mild as possible.
I was first introduced to Matthew Shardlake, the Tudor-era hunchbacked lawyer/solver of crimes/righter of wrongs, by my mam’s boyfriend, who has a notoriously fine taste in books. His own reading rule (if an author or book comes up in a pub quiz, he reads them) inspired my own approach to my reading list.
It took me ages to actually pick up Dissolution, the first book in the series. It just kept on falling through the cracks. But then I did pick it up, and wow. Hooked. I’ve taken my time over it, because the books are big and rich and I didn’t want to catch up too fast.
Well, now I’ve caught up.
I loved it so much I’m finding it hard to know where to start. Let’s take it bit by bit.
Characters! Shardlake himself is a complex, thoughtful character, and it’s him you get to know the best, as he’s not only the protagonist but the first person narrator. Seeing him evolve from the first book to this one has been really, really great. He’s still driven by his urges to do good and see justice prevail for the lowest in society as well as the highest, and still reluctant to get caught up in politics, but his religious sensibilities have changed a lot throughout the series. Dissolution begins with Henry VIII’s ferocious attacks on the Catholic Church in England after breaking away from the Pope, at which time Shardlake is a strong reformer and is working under Cromwell, and Lamentation has taken us right through all the wives to Catherine Parr. A lot of time has passed here, and a lot of things happened – war with France, Henry’s inability to decide what is good religion and what is bad, meteoric rises and equally meteoric falls at Court, bad harvests and rising taxes… – and Shardlake has seen a lot by this point. The constant flip-flopping over what people are meant to believe, and the atrocities committed by traditionalists and reformers alike, have eroded Shardlake’s own faith in a realistic (though sad) way. I hadn’t really considered historical atheism as a thing, but really, it’s a miracle that England didn’t just give up on religion altogether during the Tudor dynasty.
I suppose I might say that Shardlake is a bit modern in his ideas, maybe too modern to ring true. Though he believes his own melancholy nature is due to an imbalance in his humours, and he accepts the little societal games of hierarchy and politics without thinking about it, it’s true that he is more a friend to women and the poor than you might expect, given the time. You could argue that his being a hunchback has given him empathy in this department (or even that his combination of intelligence and general niceness predisposes him against the thoughtless prejudices of the day) but I’m not so interested in the whys and wherefores of his progressive attitude. To be honest, it’s just nice to read about a good person sometimes. He is fundamentally good, and that’s good enough for me.
The secondary characters are well-drawn too, and following them throughout the books as they come and go from Shardlake’s life and household is like catching up with old friends. This is an era of servants and Shardlake’s job is all about meeting people and making connections, and these everyday commitments and troubles and pleasures don’t get magically put on hold just because someone’s been murdered or he’s been asked to put his life on the line for politics again. I do wonder if Shardlake will ever get a decent steward for his house, though. I hope he manages to find one.
Also, Barak and Guy are my homeboys. Hollaaaaaaaa.
What I really like is the detail. There is so much detail. Recently I’ve been in the mood for books that I can really live in, and the Shardlake novels are perfect for this. I mean, they’re historical mysteries/possibly crime thriller-y at times? but Shardlake is attentive and a quiet man by nature. He takes pleasure in small things; sitting in his pavilion in the summer to get some work done, meeting friends for dinner, enjoying the journeys up and down the river on his way to do errands, taking satisfaction in a job well done, a mystery solved (though a lot of the mysteries are sad ones). I’ve seen a couple of reviews saying Sansom’s use of language isn’t that great, but I’d disagree. There are definitely, here and there, clunky sentences that do jar and could easily have been taken out, but his world is immersive, and if his language is more “window pane” than ornamental, then it still does its job fantastically well. The historical detail as well is totally solid. Sansom must have basically become a respectable Tudor historian at this point.
I’ll say a few words about the plot as well, because it wasn’t all enjoying a fine London July in Chancery Lane. It felt a little more political than some of the other stories, maybe even lower stakes (at least on a personal level for Shardlake) for a lot of the book, but my god, the end. Right near the end the book essentially punched me in the face. I won’t say more. Just. It was really close to the end and I was really worried. Like, actively upset. Damn, I love this series.
I love this series so much that if Sansom decided Shardlake was immortal and he was going to keep on lawyering away until the present day, I would welcome it with open arms. Absolutely cannot wait until the next one comes out.