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.
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Dakota Johnson's 'It's only Isis' Saturday Night Live sketch sparks controversy
- 5 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
EastEnders may bring transgender character to Albert Square to challenge 'traditional' viewers
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'