30 April, 2015

Sovereign, by CJ Sansom. Book review

Pan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-330-43608-3. 653 pages

This historical mystery is the third in the Shardlake series, following on from Dissolution (review) and Dark Fire (review). Sovereign is set in York and London in September-November 1541, with an epilogue in February 1542. King Henry VIII, Queen Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Rochford and Archbishop Cranmer are important secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

After the horrors recounted in Dark Fire, lawyer Matthew Shardlake has built up a modestly prosperous property law practice in London, with Jack Barak (formerly one of Thomas Cromwell’s henchmen) employed as his clerk. When Shardlake accepts a seemingly straightforward task from Archbishop Cranmer, he finds out too late that it also involves a political mission, escorting an important prisoner from York to London. Arriving in York, Shardlake and Barak find the city and region seething with resentment and hostility to the King. The destruction of the monasteries and the sale of their vast land holdings to absentee landlords, mainly in London, has not only wrecked the regional economy as the new landlords siphon the rents south, but also removed the safety net for those left destitute. Only a few months earlier a conspiracy against the King was discovered, throwing the London government into a panic and provoking King Henry to undertake a huge armed progress through the north of England. Shardlake’s prisoner was part of this conspiracy, and is to face torture in the Tower of London to force him to betray his associates. Shardlake, a humane man, is distressed by his mission and by the obvious injustice of the treatment of the North. And then a murder and a chance encounter bring Shardlake and Barak into possession of not one but two secrets perilously close to the throne. As events unfold, Shardlake uncovers a secret that threatens to plunge England into chaos and civil war – and he has powerful enemies at court who have a terrifying fate in store for him...

This third instalment in the Shardlake series is even darker than the first two. Corruption and cruelty are pervasive, and Shardlake finds out – personally, in one of the most harrowing sequences in the book – that honesty and justice do not necessarily provide any protection. His disillusion with both religion and royalty, developing through the first two novels as he witnessed abuses of power, is now complete. Shardlake is a decent man living in evil times, when integrity and a strong moral sense can carry a very high price. Several years ago when I reviewed Dissolution, I said ‘I will be interested to see how (if?) Shardlake and his principles manage to navigate the rest of Henry’s increasingly tyrannical reign’. In Sovereign, this is thrown into sharp relief.

The plot is suitably complex, with multiple strands that cut across one another. Some are connected and some are purely coincidental, providing ample scope for red herrings and false leads to keep the reader guessing. Whether the ancient rumours on which the main plot turns would really have been enough to threaten Henry VIII is hard to say. On the one hand, the dearth of alternative candidates – the nearest direct heir was a Cardinal in Rome – would surely have given pragmatists pause. On the other, Henry had made a great many enemies as a result of his marital antics, religious power-grab and increasingly tyrannical rule, and at least two serious rebellions had already been attempted (the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 and the conspiracy in 1541). Given Henry’s caprice and paranoia, it is entirely plausible that such rumours could have been extremely dangerous to those who happened upon them (regardless of whether there was actually a credible threat to Henry himself).

I was pleased to see Jack Barak back again, after his introduction in Dark Fire. This time he has a challenge of his own, a sparky young woman who works as a confectioner and seamstress for one of Queen Catherine’s ladies. It will be interesting to see if Barak is luckier in love than Shardlake has been so far – though I have to say I can’t really imagine Barak as a steady family man.

Like the previous two, the novel is very long and the pace is stately, even slow. This partly reflects Shardlake’s methodical nature; he seems to observe even attempts on his life in meticulous detail. The slow pace and the length allows plenty of space for historical detail about life at various levels of society under Henry’s rule.

A helpful historical note at the end outlines the background to the Progress, the northern rebellions and the rumours about the Tudor family tree, and there is a bibliography of selected further reading. A map at the front showing the layout of York in 1541 is helpful to follow the scenes in the city, and another map outlines the route of the Progress and Shardlake’s voyage from York to London for readers unfamiliar with English geography.

Dark historical mystery set against the cruelty and corruption of England during the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.