Having thought that Shardlake hung up his detecting laurels after the traumas of the last book (Sovereign), we thought we had seen the last of him. But his reappearance has got hearts racing and excitement levels raised - because Sansom is undoubtedly a great thriller writer - with an incredible eye for historical detail and nuances to boot. What more could you want in an historical novel. As Colin Dexter said in his review of the earlier books, Sansom makes the past feel like the present.
This book drags Shardlake, Barak & Guy into a grizzly world of a religious fanatic serial killer who is driven by a scary misreading of the Book of Revelation. These three are modern heroes - they are our guides in a world that is at one level so alien from ours (with the twists and turns of religious battles affecting the lives of countless mortals, from London butchers caught selling meat during Lent to the priggish hypocrisy of reformist clergy dominating the lives of their parishioners); and yet as Sansom mentions in his afterword, one which bears uncomfortable resonances in to our era, intimidated as it is by the terrorism and implacable hatred of zealots.
I suppose as someone who is a Christian, and who is equally horrified by the lengths people's principles enable them to go, I am disappointed that there are few sympathetic characters in London's religious world. Perhaps that is accurate. Cranmer is the only one who seems really to draw our empathy in this murky world - forced daily, even hourly, to exist in the tension between principle and pragmatism.
But that is not so much a criticism of the book as an observation - because historical novels tend to say more about the era in which they are written than the period they describe. And that is very much the spirit of the age. It doesn't detract from the book, though. It was gripping as ever - and investigates some serious problems and questions - such as the nature of madness, the cruelties of those in power, the absurdities of a monarch's marital whims causing societal earthquakes. But above all - this is all weaved into a great story. And that is what makes Sansom such a satisfying writer. Let's hope Shardlake returns for more! And that they don't go and ruin it by trying to make a TV series of them all, and thus obliterate all the skillful complexities!