18 February, 2013

Dark Fire, by CJ Sansom. Book review.

Pan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-330-45078-2. 576 pages.

Set in London in the summer of 1540, Dark Fire is the second in the historical mystery series that began with Dissolution (reviewed here earlier). Historical figures Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk and Richard Rich appear as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Matthew Shardlake has been practising quietly as a property lawyer in London for three years, since he investigated a series of murders at Scarnsea monastery for Cromwell (recounted in Dissolution).  The terrible events of that time cooled Shardlake’s ardour for religious reform, and he has no desire for any further involvement in high politics or religion; indeed, he is entertaining vague dreams about a peaceful country retirement. Against his better judgement, he is persuaded to take up a seemingly hopeless criminal case, defending the young niece of an old friend against a charge of brutal murder.  The girl refuses to plead, and Shardlake has no hope of saving her – until Cromwell intervenes with a stay of execution.  But Cromwell’s intervention has a price. He wants Shardlake to obtain the secret of Greek Fire, apparently recently rediscovered in the library of a dissolved monastery by a legal official and his alchemist brother.  Cromwell has promised a demonstration to the king. But when Shardlake arrives at their house, he finds the brothers brutally murdered and all their papers stolen.  Now Shardlake has to recover the secret from the murderers, and he has only twelve days to do it – if he can stay alive himself.

Dark Fire lives up to the high standard set by Dissolution. The search for Greek Fire is an ingenious mystery plot with plenty of twists and turns, false leads and dead ends, with a fair share of violent action. At the same time Shardlake is also trying to solve the mastery surrounding his friend’s niece and prove her innocent, and the two investigations intertwine, adding further complexity.

Like its predecessor, Dark Fire has a strong feeling of authenticity, conjuring up the fears and uncertainties raised by religious conflict, the sudden and ruthless destruction of the monasteries (and the consequent loss of the medical and social security services they provided, for all their faults), the rise of a money-grubbing clique obsessed with getting rich quick at everyone else’s expense, and the increasingly tyrannical rule of the ageing Henry VIII.  The squalor of Tudor London is well captured, from a rich noblewoman having to remind her lady-in-waiting not to trail her hand in the Thames during a boat trip because of the floating turds, to the gimcrack slums made of once-fine religious buildings by greedy landlords.

The most attractive feature of the novel for me was the character of Shardlake. Amidst this corrupt and semi-lawless world, Shardlake stands out as a humane and honest individual, prepared to use his legal training to stand up for the weak against the powerful to see justice done – insofar as there is justice to be had in a world where judges can be routinely bribed and the powerful do not hesitate to stoop to intimidation and murder.  Shardlake is a fully rounded character, with his fair share of flaws and foibles. He is sensitive about his hunchback, so much so that it becomes almost a form of vanity, and his humanity has blind spots that result in unintentional mistreatment of others.

I was pleased to see that Guy, an ex-monk from Scarnsea who appeared in Dissolution, makes a return in Dark Fire, now practising as a secular apothecary in London. Shardlake’s new assistant is another well-drawn character, a tough young bruiser called Jack Barak, working for Cromwell on various dodgy missions and temporarily seconded to Shardlake for the Greek Fire case.  Cocky and insolent on the surface, he is gradually revealed in more depth, and his painful history gives him insights that escape Shardlake. The ending suggests that the pairing may continue into further adventures, and it will be interesting to see how the two characters develop.

At well over 500 pages, the novel is very long, and in places I felt the pace slowed almost to a crawl, despite the constant reminders of the twelve-day deadline ticking down. This may be partly because I know a little about the history, so there was no suspense in the political subplot for me.  On the other hand, the length gives plenty of space for lots of historical detail about prisons, legal practice, living conditions, social customs and the economic and social consequences following on from the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

A helpful Historical Note outlines the political and religious background to the novel, and notes the fictional parts of the plot.  There is a useful map of London at the front, which helps in following the characters as they move around the city.

Ingenious mystery with an strong sense of time and place, set against the murderous political and religious conflicts of Henry VIII’s London.


Rick said...

Like the previous book, this one sounds good! Interesting little background twist, using Greek Fire as a McGuffin.

Irrelevant to the story, but Cromwell (and Henry VIII) likely would have been a bit disappointed if they *had* rediscovered Greek Fire.

As well as it worked for the Byzantines, it was far less 'transformative' than gunpowder had become by the 16th century, reshaping pretty much every aspect of warfare.

Carla said...

Rick - Why is that, do you think? I wonder if it was in part to do with availability of raw materials. Greek Fire seems to have depended on at least one mysterious and rare ingredient (naphtha or petroleum in the novel), whereas the ingredients for gunpowder were readily available. So gunpowder was amenable to being scaled up and new applications developed, whereas Greek Fire may have been more limited.

In the novel, Cromwell has seen a spectacular demonstration of Greek Fire by the alchemists and been mightily impressed. I think the value is seen not so much in terms of its practical military utility (or lack thereof), as in Henry's liking for spectacular military technology. Henry would have loved having Greek Fire to play with, and giving Henry such a spectacular new toy might have been an effective way back into royal favour for an unpopular minister. So Henry would only have to be not-disappointed for long enough for the political currents to shift again, even if there was disappointment later when it turned out to be less militarily useful than imagined.

Rick said...

Well, the new generation of gunpowder weapons that appeared in the late 15th century were just really, really powerful!

Bear in mind that gunpowder weapons had been around since c. 1300 with no such effect. I am not sure what all the factors were - probably both an improved mix of powder, and improved guns to fire it from.

But the upshot was *mobile* artillery that could blast down a fortress wall or sink a ship, and infantry shoulder guns that could mow down even armored troops.

One important thing about Greek Fire - for a long time the Byzantines seem to have used it very sparingly, so that it retained a strong surprise/terror effect. By the time of the Crusades its use seems to have been more common, so its limitations were better understood and countermeasures more available. (Assuming the stuff used in the Crusades was 'real' Greek Fire, which isn't quite clear.)

In contrast, for most situations there just weren't really any countermeasures to 16th century guns.

All of that said, your point about Cromwell and Henry is valid - Henry would surely have been impressed, and that was all Cromwell needed. Actual military utility wasn't critical!

Carla said...

I suppose it was the factors that interested me. As you say, gunpowder weapons went from a curiosity in the 14th C to a major weapon technology by the 16th C, whereas Greek Fire never seems to have made that leap, and I was curious about why. Your comment that the Byzantines used Greek Fire sparingly might tie in with my conjecture earlier that Greek Fire may have relied on a rare ingredient. Maybe the limitation lay partly in actually getting hold of the materials, as well as in knowing the secret formula, so that even the Byzantines, who knew all about it, could only make it in limited quantities.

By the time of the crusades, Greek Fire had been around for a good few centuries, so there was time for adversaries to have thought about ways to mitigate its effects. Can something similar be said abou gunpowder? By the time gunpowder artillery had been effective for two or three centuries, countermeasures had also developed after a fashion, like armour-plated ships, the use of a glacis around fortifications, and arguably the tank.

Rick said...

So far as I'm aware, the formula for 'true' Greek Fire remains unknown, making it wonderful for speculation!

Countermeasures for guns did eventually appear, starting even (just) before 1500 with the 'trace Italienne,' which eventually evolved into the Vauban fort. All the same, post-1500 gunpowder weapons just about totally transformed combat.

The pointed/edged weapon has indeed survived as the bayonet. But that only underlines how marginal it has become compared to the firearm it is attached to.

Gabriele Campbell said...

My guess is that Greek Fire relied on a ingredient only obtainable in the near east, else the crusaders would have brought it home with them.

And Robert the Bruce's secret Ninja Templar troop that won Bannockburn for him would have used it, too, but that didn't even happen in fiction. *grin*

Carla said...

Rick - I didn't know the Vauban fort had roots reaching back that far.

If I remember rightly, John Keegan's A History of Warfare traces four or five major shifts in war and its technology, one of which is gunpowder. (Actually, since the section is titled 'Fire' it would probably sweep Greek Fire up under the same heading, but as I recollect it's mostly gunpowder. The shared theme is harnessing stored chemical energy).

Gabriele - Yes, that would be my conclusion too. In the novel, an ex-crusader has indeed brought a sample home with him, which is how it ended up in the dissolved monastery and thus started the story that Shardlake gets involved in.

Rick said...

There's been a lot of speculation that petroleum was a component - apparently the stuff used to bubble right out of the ground in what is now Saudi Arabia.

But then, how did the Byzantines or Crusaders get significant amounts?

Those ninjas sound pretty cool!

Carla said...

Rick - according to Wikipedia, there are natural sources of petroleum near the Black Sea, which would be Byzantine territory. Maybe they obtained the ingredients from there.

In the novel the ex-soldier was given the formula and a sample by a Byzantine monk when they were both fleeing the fall of Constantinople in 1453. I've called him an ex-crusader above, but I can't remember whether he was called that in the novel; he's a bit late for the main period traditionally thought of as the Crusades. He may have been more of a soldier of fortune who happened to be serving in the area at the time.