Dark Fire by CJ Sansom is a story of political intrigue, whodunit and a Tudor weapon of mass destruction. Second in the series about Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake, Dark Fire combines two criminal mysteries; the appearance and subsequent disappearance of the alchemical formula to make an ancient terrifying weapon, and the impending trial and expected sentencing of a young woman to death by pressing.
Despite a tenuous connection between the two cases, and a somewhat meandering pace at times, I enjoyed this book for its further development of Shardlake, first seen in Dissolution. It is 1540, King Henry VIII wishes to anul his marriage to Anne of Cleves, recommended to him by Thomas Cromwell, and marry instead the teenager Catherine Howard. At the beginning of the book Cromwell’s relationship with Henry is weakening and this imposes time pressure on both the novel and on Shardlake. As the novel opens, the lawyer is defending Elizabeth Wentworth, a teenage girl accused by her family of killing her cousin by pushing him down a well. She languishes in the Hole in the cellars of Newgate Prison and refuses to speak. Shardlake, though convinced of her innocence, despairs of being able to help her.
The alchemical formula for Greek Fire, the legendary substance with which the Byzantines destroyed the Arab navies, has been lost for centuries but is discovered in the library of a closed monastery in London by a government official. Cromwell decides to present it to the king as a demonstration of his fealty. He charges Shardlake with finding the Greek Fire within two weeks; to ease this he instructs the postponement of Elizabeth’s case for two weeks. As in Dissolution, Shardlake is once again living every minute under threat of Cromwell’s demands and bad temper. When Shardlake tracks down the official and his alchemist brother, he is too late; both men are dead and the formula is missing. So starts a chase across London.
As always with Sansom, the historical setting is convincingly written with vivid descriptions of the lives of rich and poor, the divisions between them and the melting pot that is the City and its surroundings in Tudor London. As this is the second book of the series, the community around Shardlake is becoming clearer and we see a small group of people who are different. Shardlake with his hunched back; Brother Guy, Moor and apothecary, who is stared at on the streets because of the colour of his skin; Jack Barak, Cromwell’s assistant who is sent to work with Shardlake, is threatened because of his Jewish heritage. Shardlake seems a modern interpretation of a sixteenth century lawyer; he has enlightened views of both race and the role of women, and is becoming disillusioned with religion. These loyalties and views potentially cause trouble for him, adding to the vulnerability that makes him appealing.
A pleasure to read, I am hooked on this series. Next up, Sovereign.
Here’s my review of Dissolution, first in the Shardlake series.
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