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VINE VOICEon 22 March 2007
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.
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If you are already familiar with the Shardlake series you will need no second invitation to acquire this volume, as it is every bit as good as the previous two. However, if you are new to the adventures of Sansom's humane Tudor lawyer then be assured you are in for a treat. Historical whodunits are ten a penny these days, but ones of this quality are much rarer. Sansom's great skill is to evoke the England of Henry VIII so convincingly that you not only see the scenes of that ancient time but also feel them. The smells, spectacles, landscapes, characters and language of the time come truly alive and hence are an integral part of the novel's appeal. Onto this rich canvas, a complex tale of intrigue, betrayal, political rivalry, and murder is expertly woven focussing on real historical events-in this case The Royal Progress of 1541 and attendant conspiracy alongside the troubled reign of Queen Katherine Howard. Every aspect of the plot is related to the issues of the day (the author holds a PhD in History) and the set piece encounters of his fictional characters with the the era's most powerful figures are full of tension and import, consequently one learns much even as the story grips you. Yet this erudition never stifles the plot which is full of incident and moves at a cracking pace: there is none of Umberto Eco's intellectual showboating or Ellis Peters' genteel scene setting here: this is the sixteenth century in all its vibrancy, stink, and duplicity. It is also worth observing that Sansom writes well, his prose is pleasing and flows effortlessly so that a 600 plus page tome seems shorter than many half its length. In short this is a fine piece of writing which just also happens to be a thriller and one that affords the reader that very special pleasure when returning home at the end of a hard day you rub your hands and think `I can continue with Sovereign tonight'. All avid readers will understand what I mean.
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on 28 May 2007
Like most English people I guess, the figure of Henry VIII is one that intrigues me enormously.

A big man - in every respect of the word - he dominates the Middle Ages in terms of our understanding/knowledge of him and I have some sympathy with the historians who complain that the only people British schoolkids know about at the end of their history courses are Hitler and Henry.

For many of us, I guess, we see him as a 'lovable rogue', a man with huge passions and appetites and someone to be (guiltily?) admired. Well, you may admire him less after reading this excellent work.

Henry is not the main character in this book - in fact he utters only a handful of words in this 600 page tome - but (as I indicated above) in this book, like in history, he dominates the plot.

The excellently construted character Matthew Shardlake is sent to York where Henry is heading to act as a lawyer but also to carry out a 'minding' job on an anti-Henry prisoner.

During the course of his stay in York, Shardlake stumbles upon a mystery that could change history ('oh no not another Da Vinci you're thinking!!) which puts his life in danger and means he can trust no-one around him.

This is part historical fiction, part detective story, part thriller and part of a Shardlake trilogy (see what I did there?), the other two parts of which I now intend to read with gusto.

CJ Sansom writes with an elegant touch, never patronises the audience and teaches you things about the period in such a way that you don't realise you are being taught. He also leaves you guessing throughout - this is a genuine whodunnit where you end up suspecting everyone.

A book I would thoroughly recommned and which kept me wholly entertained - and (annoyingly!) - made me even MORE interested in the figure of Henry, even though he only gets one or two lines.

And to the person who reviewed this here and said it was comical like Blackadder, all I can say is he is very wrong - off with his head!!!!
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on 19 January 2007
I immensely enjoyed the first two novels featuring Matthew Shardlake, and was a little anxious when I began reading 'Sovereign': would it be as good? Well, rest assured, it is at least as good, if not better.

From the very beginning it's like meeting an old friend again who hasn't changed a bit, though you haven't seen him for quite a while. Shardlake still is that most unlikely of heroes: a crouchbacked (honest) lawyer, but above all a decent human being with sound morals and integrity.

The plot twists and turns as in the best historical thrillers, and Sansom not only perfectly captures the sounds and smells of Tudor England, but succeeds in pervading this novel with a sense of gloom and anxiety that mirrors the ruthlessness of Henry VII's court.

It feels as if this is the final novel about Matthew Shardlake, but I sincerely hope it isn't. Most other historical novels seem quite stale and dreary in comparison. A great read!
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on 28 February 2008
I've quickly become CJ Sansom's biggest fan and this is his best yet. The action in "Sovereign" takes place during the time of Henry VIII's fifth marriage to Katherine Howard, and it's a damned gripping read from cover to cover. Sansom's gift is his uncanny ability to conjour the world he writes about, its sounds, smells and social mores; into this heady brew he places Matthew Shardlake, one of the most humane and likeable detectives in fiction. Shardlake is uncommonly advanced and enlightened in his political and social views, and his reflections on what he witnesses around him are one of the highlights of the series. He is a deeply intelligent and rather modern guide to the splendour and brutality of the Tudor age. The plot itself is dramatic and complex, peopled with plenty of other colourful characters. Highly readable and very atmospheric, Sansom's fiction goes straight to the front rank.
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on 29 August 2006
This is the third book about Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in the time of Henry VIII. The first two (Dissolution and Dark Fire) were excellent and this lives up to the standard they set.

The mystery is very good -- it is quite difficult to put down and the story line is extremely well-constructed. If you buy it just as a thriller, you will find it a great read. The twist is, according to the historical notes at the end, based on some credible evidence.

However, the great joy of this book is the feeling it gives for a fascinating period of history. As with C.J. Sansom's other book (the superb Winter in Madrid), this is a period in which society was sharply divided on ideological and religious grounds. The paranoia about Catholicism has some very clear parallels with the current day: Shardlake's outrage at the abuses perpetrated by the state in the name of suppressing threats from rebels or foreign attackers could almost come from present-day editorials about the Terrorism Act or detention without trial. Fortunately, the acceptance of torture and execution still sounds very alien.

The descriptions of Henry VIII's court re-create the extraordinary, and arbitrary, power of a terrifying tyrant.

My only reservation is that the dialogue occasionally grates. Sansom should choose between authentic pre-Shakesperean dialogue (which would make the book as difficult to understand as the Book of Common Prayer) or modern speech. Fortunately, he nearly always chooses the latter but occasionally lapses into archaic constructions or uses the odd olde-world word. Maybe it is reasonable to use "malapert" since we simply don't have a way of expressing it anymore but "aye" instead of "yes" just sounds odd. I didn't really notice this in the first two books but I think he used the same policy -- maybe I registered it because the dialogue in Winter in Madrid was so superbly well done. In any case, it is a niggle that does not really take away from the enjoyment of the book

Overall, despite the 500+ pages, this is a thoroughly good investment of time. I found myself hoping that Shardlake would have a long life (he's almost 40 as the book closes) and that I would get to read about much more of it. I wonder how he survives Edward VI's ultra-reformism and Mary's attempt to re-impose Catholicism. I hope that Sansom plans to tell us.
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on 20 September 2006
I thought this was a superb novel. It is a long book but one which I found very hard to put down once I started reading. It is the third of the Shardlake series featuring the fortunes of the hunchback lawyer, and I think the best one yet. The story seems to follow a similar pattern to the earlier stories as our hero is despatched on a mission to join the king's progress in Yorkshire.

Shardlake has rather a bad time of it in York. The enemies who blight his mission are crueller and nastier then before. The story has a darker, harder edge then in the previous tales. Shardlake's character is developed further and you see a weariness and cynicism setting in. He realises that King Henry VIII's reign has turned into a reign of terror. He sees clearly that the King is a monster but he can't bring himself to turn against him.

The story moves along at quite a pace, the characters are all believable and the descriptions of the royal entourage and especially his encounter with the cruel bloated King are exceptional. All in all this is a fantastic tale.
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on 27 September 2006
I have been waiting for this book since the hardback publication of Dark Fire and I was not disappointed; Tudor England was evoked so I could smell and taste it. I loved it so much I literally could NOT put it down and finished it in a day. The only thing I missed, because the book is mainly set in York, were the heady depictions of Tudor London.

The character of Shardlake is wonderfully created, but I do agree with another of the reviewers that Barak is a little cliched as a sidekick. I am also a little worried the women are either widowed dames who keep house or conniving harlots. I would like a realistic non-old/evil female character.

As a soft-hearted woman I long for Shardlake to find love; but as a critical reader I awknowledge that is unlikely for a forty year old lawyer with a hunched back in Tudor England...but surely Mr Sansom...there must be a wealthy widow (not too old or evil) out there somewhere??? Someone along the lines of Bess of Hardwick (a very good biography of her is just out in paperback).
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VINE VOICEon 13 July 2008
This third entry in the Shardlake series is as detailed and vivid as the previous two entries. The plot is rather convoluted and I found it a little implausible, though I was aware of the Blaybourne allegations from my reading of Yorkist history, and, of course, it must be admitted that Tudor history is replete with true occurrences that the most fanciful historical novelist would hardly dare invent (would a novelist ever invent the story of Henry VIII's six wives? no, it would probably be too implausible to make up!). I also thought this one was rather too long at 650 pages and I got just a tiny little bit tired of chapter after chapter ending with Shardlake bumping into one of his antagonists coming round the corner yet again. But this was all more than compensated for by the last 100 pages, full of such drama, horror and twists and turns that, in the words on the front cover of my edition, made me unable to prise myself from it.
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on 7 June 2007
This is a great read for anyone interested in Tudor history combined with a good fictional thriller.

Sansom creates a great sense of place and time with attention to detail. This lends the book an authenticity that is is often missing in other historical fiction.

The dialogue and the characterisations are generally believable but I have some misgivings about Shardlake himself. There are times when I feel he is bearing modern day sensibilities (such as his distate of blood sports and the violence of the era) simply to act as a bridge between the modern reader and the plot. For me the dialogue is least effective and anachronistic when Shardlake adopts these 21st century values.

The book is well-paced with a good balance between descriptive prose and dialgoue to move the story forward.

If you fancy a holiday read that is several steps up from a Dan Brown then this could be the book for you.
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