Review - LAMENTATION, C.J. Sansom

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Matthew Shardlake
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Book Synopsis

As Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, an incendiary manuscript threatens to tear his court apart in the new installment of C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series.

Autumn, 1546. King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors prepare for a final and decisive power struggle; whoever wins will control the government. The Catholics decide to focus their attack on Henry's sixth wife, the Protestant Queen Catherine Parr. As Catherine begins to lose the King's favor, she turns to the shrewd, hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, to contain a potentially fatal secret.

The Queen has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, a memoir so radical that if it came to the King's attention, it could bring her and her courtly sympathizers to ruination. The London printer into whose hands she entrusted the manuscript has been murdered, the book nowhere to be found.

Shardlake's investigations take him down a trail that begins among printshops in the filthy backstreets of London, but leads him once more to the labyrinthine world of court politics, where Protestant friends can be as dangerous as Catholic enemies, and those who will support either side to further their ambition are the most dangerous of all.

Book Review

Lamentation is the sixth in CJ Samson's historical crime fiction series set during the reign of King Henry VIII. As with other books in the series, one of the key drivers of the plot is a battle over religion and religious beliefs. The book starts with the horrific burning of Anne Askew and two of her compatriots, accused of heresy for daring to suggest that the bread and wine used during Mass do not become the body and blood of Christ. Society itself is in turmoil, torn between Catholicism and Protestantism and the various shades in between, to the point where the safest position to take on any given day was: I worship as the King worships.

Samson's main character, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has, in the way of many historical fiction protagonists, been a participant and observer in many of the key moments of the age. At the start of Lamentation he is still suffering a little post-traumatic stress from having been on the Mary Rose when it sank in the Solent the year before. He is once again drawn into affairs of state when a manuscript called The Lamentation of a Sinner, written in secret by Queen Catherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife, is stolen and one of page is found in the hands of a murdered radical printer. Shardlake has worked for Catherine before and has already drawn the ire of both Henry himself and a number of his key advisors.

Lamentation is a hefty slab of historical crime fiction. At over 600 pages it has the potential to wear out its welcome. But after a slow start, Samson manages to get the plot boiling at just the right temperature to keep the reader's interest. This is assisted by a subplot involving a sibling battle over their mother's will which manages to raise the stakes for Shardlake just as the main plot starts to run out of steam.

There is a lot of historical detail here but not so much that it overwhelms the narrative. Samson is able to bring the late 16th century to life even though it is through the views of the slightly anachronistic Shardlake. Life at the time could be nasty and brutal and the combat scenes, particularly, bring out the savagery of the age. There is also plenty of court intrigue and a view into the last days of Henry VIII as his health declined and his courtiers and advisors jockeyed for position, changing allegiances as it suited them.

While Lamentation is the sixth in a long running series and there are passing references to previous events and characters it stands up well as a stand-alone novel. Shardlake is an engaging narrator and both his companions and enemies come across as fully formed and complex characters. The resolution is an interesting surprise which manages to throw more light on the politics of the time and the end implies that there may well be more Shardlake to come, which is by no means a bad thing.

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