MACMILLAN, £16.99 Order for £15.50 (free p&p) on 08700 798 897
Sovereign by CJ Sansom
The climax of this royal progress was the diseased bulk of Henry VIII
Monday 28 August 2006
This is the third fictional outing for CJ Sansom's interesting creation, Matthew Shardlake, a 16th-century lawyer afflicted by a hunched back. Nature has compensated for his deformity by giving him an exceptionally shrewd brain, an absolute necessity for survival on the periphery of the dangerous court of Henry VIII.
Henry, now on wife number five, takes her on a royal progress to the rebellious north, still strongly Catholic and Lancastrian in sympathy. Matthew and his faithful henchman Barak have established themselves in York, where Shardlake is charged with an unpleasant mission: to make sure an anti-royal conspirator remains in good shape until he can be taken to London to receive the attentions of the king's skilled torturers.
Sansom is excellent on contemporary horrors. This is no herbs-and-frocks version of Tudor England, but a remorseless portrait of a violent, partly lawless country. Visitors to York are welcomed by rotting body-parts on the gates, while undercurrents of fear pervade the city. A revolt has been crushed, but Shardlake discovers the possibility of another insurrection, fortified by evidence that the Tudors have no legitimate claim to the throne; it's not a new theory, but it is well presented here.
The terrifying business of encountering the king is brilliantly done: the mounting tension, the abasement. Sansom's incorporation of details of the royal progress is a model of how historical fiction can meld recorded fact with the imagined perspective of the contemporary individual, recreating the moment.
This was no mere bunch of nobles trundling round the country, but a travelling army of courtiers, soldiers, lawyers and sappers, descending like a plague of locusts. They made such a throng that the disposal of bodily wastes destroyed the land through which they passed. The climax of it all was the huge, diseased bulk of Henry VIII himself, demanding total surrender from this remote part of his kingdom.
Within these horrors, Shardlake manages to keep sparks of humanity in his heart, both for his hapless prisoner and for the tormented animals intended to amuse the populace.
The plot involves much ducking and diving as various treasonable elements try to murder Shardlake's prisoner. Tension is kept up as the lawyer's compassion for the conspirator wars with his sense of duty in this craftsmanlike piece of historical fiction. You can lose yourself in this world.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 2 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 3 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
- 4 Refugee crisis: Aylan's life was full of fear - in death, he is part of 'humanity washed ashore'
- 5 German police forced to ask public to stop bringing donations for refugees arriving by train
Hey Arnold! is coming back, and possibly Rugrats too
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Prog rock finally comes of age with launch of the first Official Progressive Chart
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 100,000 back our campaign
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up