In what looks like being the final book of a trilogy, C J Sansom brings out long-suffering lawyer Matthew Shardlake for another mystery thriller set against the impeccably researched background of a vivid, tumultuous and colourful Tudor England.
Sansom has set this trio of books in the reign of Henry VIII, and in this book the lawyer gets closer than he would otherwise care to the dangerous monarch. His old promoter and task-master, Cromwell, has already fallen out of the King's favour, being despatched before being lamented. Shardlake is therefore surprised to find him being sought out to perform more missions in the royal service.
In this book he is working for Archbishop Cranmer, the reforming Archbishop of Canterbury and pivotal figure in the religious, social and political history of the turbulent reformation times. His mission is to head to York and meet up with the King's Progress. This mighty procession of monarchical majesty is designed to impress and cow the rebellious northerners, who have only just been settled after the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising.
Shardlake, always seeking an easy life, is assured his job will simply be to help a fellow lawyer with the pleas before the King. Naturally not all goes to plan, and the unwilling lawyer is thrust into a dangerous and gripping thriller which threatens to undermine the very essence of the Tudor dynasty, the very essence of Sovereignty.
I am not usually a big fan of historical fiction. It is often used as a vehicle by poor writers to give their bland prose a splash of factual colour, a "bodice ripping thriller", as Blackadder might say. But C J Sansom is very different. A historian by nature, he feels and knows the period well enough to be able to weave a rich tapestry, evoking the very essence of the times by his settings, plots, characterisations and even the conversational vocabulary.
The third book is in some ways the best of the three. It is longer, and allows a deeper development of the plot and the relationship Shardlake has with his assistant Barak and the other minor characters. The city of York is richly portrayed, and makes a change from the setting of London and the south, and he is especially sharp at the depiction of a town still smarting after the failed rebellion. If there is much of a criticism it is that it is very much more of the same. But if that has been a winning formula, that can't be much of a failing.