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on 6 November 2008
"Dark Fire" is the second novel in C.J. Sansom's series set in King Henry VIII's England, following the career of the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. It is the summer of 1540, a time of political and religious turmoil as various factions at court vie for the king's attentions. When Shardlake is asked to defend a girl accused of murder, the case brings him into contact once again with his old employer, Earl Cromwell. The earl has a new assignment for him, of vital importance to the state: the long-forgotten weapon of Greek Fire has been unearthed in London, but now the formula is stolen and the alchemists involved, killed. It is down to Shardlake to discover who the perpetrators are and recover Greek Fire - before it is too late. For the king himself is interested in the substance, and Cromwell's own career and life hang in the balance if it is not found soon.

I arrived at "Dark Fire" without reading "Dissolution", the first book in the series. However, since each volume is intended as a separate episode in Shardlake's career, at no point did I feel that I had missed out on any essential details. At approaching 600 pages, this is the longest of the four Shardlake novels thus far, and some perseverance is required through the first half of the book, which does at times make for difficult reading. Part of the problem is that a large number of characters are introduced very quickly, and it is often difficult to differentiate between them. Nevertheless, as the book progresses, things are made easier. Indeed in the second half, as Shardlake discovers more about Greek Fire and his task becomes more concrete, it is much easier to feel drawn into the story.

The sights and sounds of Tudor London are brought out in full, with everything from the heat of the summer to the undertones of political unrest realised on the page. Sanson holds a PhD in History, and it is clear that he has transferred that academic intimacy with his period to great effect here. The dialogue is well crafted, suggesting an antiquated 'period' feel but without being heavy-handed about it, and rarely slipping into modern speech. Likewise the characters are well-rounded and feel of their time. In particular the addition of Jack Barak to the cast, as Shardlake's assistant, is a welcome one: his grit and no-nonsense approach prove to be an excellent foil to the lawyer.

All in all, despite a difficult start, "Dark Fire" is an entertaining and immersive read. The paperback edition also contains the first chapter of the next volume in the series, "Sovereign", to whet the reader's appetite.
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VINE VOICEon 3 June 2008
In this Second novel Dark Fire, two stories have been entwined over a twelve day period; C. J Sansom has brought us forward three years to 1540, the hottest summer of the 16th century. Based in London where brutality of life is harsh, noisome, sweat, stench and greed is everywhere. Thomas Cromwell's position as chief of staff for King Henry VIII is filled with great uncertainty, for the King is preparing to dump yet another wife Anne of Cleves. Sansom has also questioned Hunchback London lawyer Matthew Shardlake views after his Dissolution experience, he is now less sure of his political position, religious convictions and more sceptical of others.

Shardlake had been trying to keep a low profile; business had not been great since he had been out of favour with Cromwell. A case had come his way unexpectedly by helping an old friend's niece. Even though the Judge ruled against Shardlake in court, he suddenly had a change of heart outside of it; the Judge agreed to a stay of execution for two weeks. But Shardlake was about to realise darker forces had intervened, Cromwell's network had been doing overtime and the girl was only to keep a longer life span if Shardlake was to help his old nemesis, another pressing matter awaited.

Cromwell had witnessed with his own eyes a demonstration of Greek fire or Byzantine fire of liquid. It was capable of discharging a stream of burning fluid effective on both sea and land, inextinguishable, dreaded and feared by any enemy on attack. The secret behind Greek fire was handed down from one emperor to another and no one else had been able to produce it, but in history the formula had been lost long ago. What a war weapon to behold, not to mention it would put Cromwell back in favour with the King, whom he'd already promised a demonstration to, in two weeks. The problem was these men who had held the liquid formula were shrewd, willing for it to go to the highest bidder either in England or overseas; this was conspiracy against the King. Shardlake's commission was to find out about these men, quietly, also obtain the formula and source of Dark Fire, Cromwell appointed a minder for this dangerous mission one Jack Barak, the chase across London Begins.

Fantastic! Sansom gives us a broad view of politics in the Tudor era, conspiracies of court, a political system based on birth not merit, the division between church and state, prisoners who are tried without representation, housing and sewage problems, even Jack Barak is mocked for being the descendant of Jews. Shardlake is given plenty of scope to debate the morality of the world. Sansom does a great job of weaving real history with fiction so it flows remains easy to read and understandable.

This book is longer than Dissolution, but it's so enjoyable it's not noticeable, with its history and mixes of real names in history such as Richard Rich, Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk even an overview of Henry VIII and his wives entwined with fictitious characters. Mathew Shardlake is a great fiction character at last given the opportunity for some sexual tension between him and a lady of higher standing. But adding the character Jack Barak to this novel is a wonderful touch of writing; Shardlake and Barak complement each other. Shardlake's quiet, logical and has formality, Barak's younger, slightly arrogant, rough and ready with touches of violence if needed and an eye for the ladies, the two get into no end of trouble.

Thoroughly enjoyable History. Highly Recommended!

Andrea Bowhill
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on 21 December 2007
I was delighted to find another historial murder mystery author and this book did not dissapoint. The only annoying point was I realised about a quarter of the way through I had picked up the second in the series although its great there is a series and I can read the rest. An un-putdownable page turner one is cast into Tudor London with its tense politics and huge rich/poor divide. The descriptions of the city and characters are so evocative I was hard pressed to get up and make a cup of tea. A brilliantly drawn out suspense with an unexpected ending, even with a history degree I was expecting the 'goodies' to triumph completely, a la Suzanna Gregory, its a riveting read only not recommended if you do not have a good long period of time to devote utterly to it.
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on 15 February 2005
I thought Darkfire was a terrific book. It is very well researched and the descriptions of the characters are quite superb. The main character, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchback lawyer and he is very convincing. A clever and honest man plunged into a nightmare web of murder and treachery. He has an "assistant" forced on him by Thomas Cromwell and the relationship between the two is dealt with very well.
An extremely believable image of a dark and menacing 16th century London is created. The themes of cruelty, greed, social advancement and religious intolerance all come through strongly.
Many of the characters in the novel seem untrustworthy, slippery, greedy or just plain nasty. I see the author had worked as a solicitor and I just wonder if he has clients or former work colleagues at the back of his mind ! I just hope the author has more adventures in store for Matthew Shardlake !
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on 30 August 2007
Having had a fascination for the Tudor period for some time, I found this to be an interesting and entirely captivating read. It brings to life the streets of London circa 1540 in a way that is entirely believable. Sansom brings to life characters of this period who are known in history only through dry accountings. His main character, Mather Shardlake, is not your typical hero. For one thing he is a hunchback, and is treated scathingly by many people, and secondly he is a lawyer. However, you find it very easy to bond with him and it is nice to see a lead character who is different from the norm.

I would most definitely recommend this book. Whilst the mysteries themselves are not all that hard to work out for yourself, it is more the fact that this book is different to most modern day crime novels that make this such an alluring read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 September 2006
I enjoyed this book very much. It will certainly please the myriads of historical crime novel readers. Period crime novels are probably at their highest level for many years and this is certainly one of the better ones. Not a classic but certainly a very enjoyable and interesting read.

1540 and Mathew Shardlake, believes that he has put himself out of favour with the flinty Thomas Cromwell. Matthew is trying to give his full attention to his legal practice and stay out of the way of one of England's most powerful men without success. His involvement in a murder case once again brings him into close contact with the King's chief minister and a new assignment.

The secret formula for Greek Fire, a legendary substance that creates fire that cannot be extinguished by any known means has been uncovered in a London monastery and Matthew is sent to recover it, but he soon finds out that everything is not as it would seem . . .
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on 20 March 2008
Matthew becomes more of an action hero than in the first novel, Dissolusion, as his life is threatened more frequently and intensly. However, he now has a dashing new assistant, Barak. There are two mysteries to solve. His own personal desires are also in need of attention. The pace of the novel is intense as he is under continual pressure from Lord Cromwell who is keen to save his own head.
The atmosphere of Tudor England is evoked with great skill and the reader experiences the vulnerabilities of all, from the lowest to the highest on the social ladder.
Some of the escapes from situations which Matthew and Barack become entwined in are quite fanciful, and will make better film (hopefully this will happen), than written word.
I enjoyed the first novel more, but this is a fantastic read. The plot is incredibly clever as the task Cromwell sets him has massive implications for the military power balance of a very tense Europe.
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VINE VOICEon 30 May 2007
Shardlake has got into his stride and has been allowed to break out of the confines of Scarnsea Abbey. Back in London, he has to contend with a handful of different cases, with various challenges to his ingenuity and safety. 3 years on from DISSOLUTION, a lot has changed, for Shardlake personally with his now cooled reformist zeal, and for the political climate. Yet again, Sansom manages to weave intricate details of national affairs with well-drawn bit parts and key characters' emotional credibility. Shardlake is a sympathetic hero who lives in a three-dimensional and almost tangibly vibrant Tudor London. The politics is lethal and even if you are vaguely familiar with the bullet points of the period, this brilliantly fills in the gaps of historical ignorance with plausible and gripping narrative. But it doesn't matter if Tudor history is a blank page for you - Sansom's research and eye for historical detail and nuance are remarkable - we can all learn something from this book about life 500 years ago.

This is what historical fiction should be like - yet again. Couldn't put it down and found myself thoroughly immersed in this world. Fantastic.
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on 28 June 2015
I was so excited when our book club choice turned out to be the second outing for Matthew Shardlake, and I wasn’t disappointed with the story. I had enjoyed Dissolution though this one had far more action, held my interest more and didn’t plod in the same way. It’s four years on from the events at Scarnsea and Matthew finds himself being summoned by Cromwell again, just as he has taken on a challenging case of defending a young girl accused of killing her cousin. Elizabeth refuses to plead which of course held serious consequences in Tudor times as she faced being pressed (literally) to force a plea. Cromwell has a dangerous assignment – and a promise – that Matthew’s client can have two weeks’ reprieve whilst he uncovers a secret for him. He is therefore on a countdown and this gives a sense of urgency which drives the story. He seems to make little headway at first, and the wide variety of characters does lead to some confusion. I found it difficult to keep up with who was who and so much went on that impeded progress, but this just increased the tension.

I loved the 16th century swearing “God’s wounds! God’s teeth/bones!” but I wondered if calling someone “mate” and “your fellow” was standard 1540 slang? Matthew’s narration has a contemporary feel to it which made the story very easy to read. We experience along with Matthew the first sight and taste of “strange, pale yellow crescents” (bananas) and “pale stuff that the Poles drank” (vodka) which adds immediacy to the narrative.

We meet Matthew’s new sidekick Jack Barak at the audience with Cromwell, and he goes on to be a terrific character who I am really looking forward to reading more about; I like Matthew and Jack very much and they are a great partnership. What makes this series of books are the lead characters and the situations they find themselves in set alongside the historical context and real-life characters. Matthew and Jack are tasked with finding out what happened what happened to the secret formula for Greek Fire, which was used by the Byzantines to destroy armies and which Thomas Cromwell needs in order to get himself back in favour with the king. He is off Henry’s Christmas card list over engineering the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves and for the first time we see him in a position of weakness.

The relationship between Matthew and Jack is fabulous. In contrast to Matthew, Jack is rough around the edges, insouciant and reckless – but brave, fearless and loyal. They complement each other perfectly. Matthew is physically limited – Jack makes up for these limitations. Matthew has the thinking skills Jack still has to develop – though he shows brilliant flashes of insight. We have another love interest for Matthew in this story and he is, again, unlucky in love – in this he reminds me of Inspector Morse; brilliant mind but his emotional intelligence could do with a bit of work as he keeps picking the wrong women. That said, the love interest in this book turned out to be a selfish snob, not worthy of him anyway. There is a really touching scene when Matthew’s beloved horse is killed and he tries to be stoic about it, though we know he really is heartbroken. And Guy, the apothecary from Scarnsea, is back and is a central character who supports Matthew immensely.

Again, all’s well that ends well - for those who deserve it, and scores are settled and just desserts served out accordingly. The ending is perfectly timed to coincide with the downfall of Thomas Cromwell and set the scene for the next chapter in Matthew and Jack’s adventures.

Proof reading error though – Jane Gristwood’s maiden name changes from Storey to Harper that a good proofreader should have picked up.
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...but having previously enjoyed Dissolution I was looking forward to this one and it did not disappoint and in fact was an even better read. Shardlake is an excellent character, the humble and gentlemanly lawyer with a curved but steely spine and great intellect. Unfortunately for him, this last fact was remembered by Chief Minister Cromwell who was in last chance saloon with King Henry having foisted the unsightly Anne of Cleves on him for a disastrous fourth union. In dire straits, Cromwell's only hope of winning favour again was to produce the legendary Dark or Greek Fire, a medieval weapon of mass destruction that could be used in any future war against the papist France or Spain. Thus the lawyer was dragged away from his desk to scour the foul and often dangerous streets of Tudor London to hunt down the elusive weapon.

The time of Henry the Eight is a novelist's dream with so much going on and Sansom gets it just right with a perfect mix of history and fiction. We never get to meet the King directly nor the Earl too often for that matter but his dark presence is there in every chapter, his name alone enough to make grown men cry. Not content with giving his master an unsuitable partner, the Earl lands Shardlake with his trusted sidekick Barak a rather uncouth "churl" who Cromwell took under his wing after the death of his parents. Handy with a sword but a bit outspoken for the humble lawyer's taste, the unlikely couple eventually bond over shared life-changing experiences in this dark tale. Their banter and chemistry moves the tale along nicely in the search for real chemists who can produce the deadly liquid and save the Earl's neck. Sansom conjures up the sights and sounds of the stifling and stinking London just as I shivered reading his previous book set in a wintry Sussex monastery.

A great read from start to finish, both captivating and often moving. Sansom is on top of his game and this is highly recommended.
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