Sovereign by CJ Sansom is third in the Matthew Shardlake series and the best so far. Taking true events –Henry VIII’s Royal Progress to York in 1541, the northern rebellion against the crown and the rumours of Queen Catherine’s infidelity – Sansom writes a complex story of rebels, betrayal, bastards and inheritance that keeps one more page turning.
Lawyer Shardlake is in York at the bequest of Archbishop Cranmer ostensibly to present legal petitions to the King, but he also has a secret task. To watch over the welfare of a Yorkist prisoner, ensuring the man is kept alive and able to be interrogated in London. Shardlake agrees reluctantly, aware he will be keeping alive a man destined for torture and the rack. But a series of odd events make him question his role in York and whether his life is in danger. This is a densely plotted novel with many clues and dead ends as Shardlake tries to find answers – to the murder of a local glazier removing glass from church windows, to an old legend about royal succession, to the connivings and hidden intentions of some of the ladies employed by the Queen, and why an old enemy is rousing dissent against Shardlake. As always, he is determined to stay on the side of what is right; which lands him in trouble. At his side, Barak defends his master and cautions him to stop annoying powerful people by asking difficult questions and failing to fall into line. But this is the reason Shardlake is so popular with readers; when his hunched back is ridiculed by the king, no less, it made me want to shout out aloud.
The mid-sixteenth century is a dark point in history with an arrogant and obsessive king, an obsequious court, and corruption everywhere. Set mostly in York, this novel has a different feel to the previous two. The politics of the time saw Yorkshire punished for its support of the House of York and its opposition to the Tudors, there was much poverty, starvation and injustice. So, fertile ground for Sansom to use as the basis for Sovereign, writing period detail with the tension of a modern thriller as Shardlake questions his own beliefs and values. Uncomfortable reading in places, doing the right thing is sometimes easy to talk about but not always easy to do.
Very good. I can’t wait to read the next in the series.
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