C. J. Sansom


"...a gripping and engrossing book. "


The series is moving into the turbulent period post the reign of Henry VII. Henry's son, the child Edward VI is on the throne. Catherine Parr is dead. Shardlake has, he hopes, moved away from the dangerous waters his political work drew him into. He is now involved in legal work for Henry's younger daughter, the Princess Elizabeth. Shardlake is estranged from his former assistant, Jack Barak, and is starting to find his new, safe life a bit dull.

But those who live too close to the throne are never truly safe. Being part of Elizabeth's retinue is likely to draw the enmity of her elder sister, Mary. There is unrest in the country over the imposition of a new prayer book by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset who has established himself as Protector. The Protector is also pursuing a pointless and increasingly costly war against Scotland, the coinage is being devalued, and the people are being pushed deeper into poverty by the ongoing enclosures that is depriving them of land.

Against this background, Shardlake is instructed by Elizabeth to investigate a murder charge that has been brought against one of her Boleyn relatives. Anne Boleyn remains a target of intense dislike, and Shardlake fears that any intervention by Elizabeth could have serious consequences. Nevertheless, he takes on the task, and travels to Norwich accompanied by his assistant Nicholas. Barak is involved with the courts there and soon gets drawn in to Shardlake's mission which becomes, of course, complex, political and dangerous.

The investigation becomes inextricably entangled with the Norfolk rebellion led by Robert Kett against the social and economic injustices caused by the land enclosure. Shardlake finds himself acting as a legal advisor for the rebels. Barak becomes an open supporter, and Nicholas, proud of his status as a gentleman, originally reviles them but gradually comes to understand the nature of the injustices that have been carried out against these people. Eventually, the murder is solved and the rebellion is bloodily suppressed, and once again, Shardlake returns to his legal practice certainly older – but wiser? This remains to be seen.

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C J Sansom does a good job of presenting the minutiae of Tudor life, along with more obscure aspects of history, meticulously researched and convincingly presented. He does not step back from the darker aspects of Tudor life, with scenes of execution, rape and cruel violence. This world is peopled with grotesques, monsters and victims through which Shardlake and his retinue often move like a bull at a domino-toppling rally. Shardlake's investigation, and later his involvement with the rebellion brings chaos and disaster in its wake. Twenty-first century readers might well sympathise with the idealistic Robert Kett, but they also know from the start this rebellion is not going to end well. The bleakness of this world foreshadows the turbulence and suffering that is to come to the country before Elizabeth's accession to the throne. The book is very long – the longest Shardlake yet – and sometimes the narrative momentum gets lost in the story of Kett's rebellion, its betrayal and its ultimate fate. This is a tragic and little-known story, but the telling of it often buries completely the crime investigation that brought Shardlake to Norwich in the first place. Sansom is a master story-teller, and in 'Tombland' he gives us a gripping narrative of the Tudor world. The usual suspects are meticulously lined up: Barak, Tamasin, the physician, Guy, now suffering poor health, the endlessly scheming Richard Rich; and at the end of the book, Shardlake's world has moved on in an interesting and unexpected way. Sansom knows how to please his audience. The pageantry is rich, the murder is macabre, the deaths portrayed are often brutal and violent. Despite its structural flaws, 'Tombland' is a gripping and engrossing book.

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