Heartstone–Another C.J. Sansom Novel


Since Ellis Peters began writing her wonderful Brother Cadfael novels, I’ve been hooked on medieval thrillers/mystery/historical novels. I’ve run through all of Peters, lots of Paul Doherty, and now five volumes of the Matthew Shardlake series written by C.J. Sansom. His focus is on the reign of Henry VIII (‘I am, I am’) and so mainly on the 1540s. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer/barrister of some note, a hunchback in an age where that was seen as a curse of God, and now a single older man, who has a Jewish right hand man, Jack Barak. There is hardly anything normal about Shardlake, including his remarkable intelligence and refusal to allow injustice to stand.

C.J. Sansom’s strength is historical description and analysis. His main character can be compared to the main character of the Hugh Corbett series of Paul Doherty, but Sansom does not have the flair nor eloquence of a Doherty, nor the humor and spiritual dimension that Peters brought to her novels. And Sansom’s novels tend to be really long, this one is 636 or so pages. But if you are a lover of English history, and political intrigue, and have empathy for Shardlake himself who is a likable character, then these novels are an excellent summer read, and you learn some things in the process. The interpersonal dynamics between Shardlake and Queen Katherine Parr, and between Shardlake and Jack Barak are interesting and fun to watch play out.

From a religious point of view, you will likely be dismayed at the behavior of both Catholics and Protestants behaving badly, and maliciously towards each other. Religion and politics were regular, if bad, bedfellows in that period of English history.

This is now the fifth novel in the series (a sixth has already emerged called Lamentation) and it centers on two story lines, the story of a woman in Bedlam, named Fettisplace whose past is shrouded in mystery, including why she is even in an insane asylum, and the story of the young man who wears a heartstone who is trapped in a family not his own, as a ward (the heartstone bone taken from a deer, near it’s heart as a trophy having felled the deer with one arrow). Here is the Amazon summary review about the novel……

“In 1545, times are perilous for London counsel Matthew Shardlake and for his country. While the English, heavily taxed and with their coinage debased by Henry VIII, prepare for a naval attack from the French at Portsmouth, Shardlake takes on a case at the request of Catherine Parr on behalf of her former servant, whose son committed suicide after discovering “monstrous wrongs” against a teenage ward he once tutored. As the 43-year-old, hunchbacked Shardlake seeks to uncover secrets in the ward’s household, he also investigates the past of a presumably sane woman kept for years in Bedlam. Even with the queen’s patronage, the dogged Shardlake is threatened bodily while pursuing answers to both cases, which ultimately pit him against his old court nemesis, Sir Richard Rich. The heft of this fifth in the Shardlake series may be intimidating, but Sansom’s supple and action-packed prose should keep readers engaged. The novel vividly captures the Tudor scene, from its corrupt politics to the stench of its streets and the horror of battle. Historical mystery at its finest.”

If you want to sample one of the novels in the series to see if they are your cup of tea, then I would say try Dark Fire, which is the best tale of the first five.

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