This is my review of Lamentation (The Shardlake series) by C. J. Sansom.
Since it is advisable to have read at least some of the previous five books in this series – say the opening “Dissolution”, “Sovereign” and “Heartstone”, it is unnecessary to provide much explanation of the narrator Shardlake, a shrewd lawyer whose persistence and integrity make him ideal for the role of private investigator in the dangerous and twisted world of Tudor England. In this case, against his better judgement, a mixture of loyalty and understandable if hopeless devotion for Henry V111’s last wife, Catherine Parr, lead him to accept the task of retrieving her manuscript, “Lamentation of a Sinner”, which the King is likely to regard as heretical.
Sansom’s Shardlake novels are always a mine of thoroughly researched information about life of people in all walks of Tudor life. Even if he distorts some facts for dramatic purposes, this serves as an entertaining way of grasping the shifting politics of Henry V111’s court. What intrigues me most, well-conveyed in “Lamentation” is the sense of insecurity and fear under Henry, as strong as in any modern-day police state. The king himself is desperate to maintain his own position and dynasty, and prepared to do whatever is necessary to achieve this, but not to take personal responsibility for his actions. So, as a sick man approaching the death which it is treason to mention, doubts over the safety of his soul draw Henry back to the Catholic mass, under the influence of men like Bishop Gardiner who want to see reformers burned alive if they deny that the bread and wine of Communion turns into the actual body of Christ. Yet, Henry’s desire to keep his position as the Head of the Church in England makes it impossible to cede authority back to the Pope, pulling him back towards Protestants on whom he can rely to keep his heir Edward in full control of both Church and State in the future.
Sansom makes this the basis of an often swashbuckling yet also poignant drama. “I did not want to attend the burning” is a masterful opening hook. Yet, Sansom immediately backtracks to introduce us to a range of main characters who are all developed in some depth to show their personalities and motives.
I agree with some detractors who have found the pace a little pedestrian at times: the length has been padded out with frequent dusty rides on the ageing steed Genesis, hiring of wherries on the Thames and admission by pass to Whitehall. Analysis of what may be afoot is chewed over too often, so that some potentially very dramatic moments do not come as a surprise. The language used tends to be too modern, as is some of the behaviour at social gatherings. I appreciate that many fans will appreciate the chance to immerse themselves in the world of Shardlake as long as possible. Overall, a plot that at times seems overcomplicated in fact comes to a strong, unpredictable and intriguing denouement. I was also impressed by the way Shardlake’s own outlook evolves in this story.
I am sure this will not be the last in the series, although fear for Shardlake should he survive into the Catholic bigotry of Mary’s reign.