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.