Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Dark Fire

In C.J. Sansom's first Matthew Shardlake novel, Dissolution (reviewed here), the hunchback lawyer investigates evil events at a monastery that Henry VIII and his chief councillor, Thomas Cromwell, are planning to destroy. In this sequel, Dark Fire, Shardlake reluctantly sets off on another mission for Cromwell--and discovers a plot that will result in Cromwell's disgrace and death.

That last sentence was not a spoiler. The novel is set in 1540, and that was indeed the year that Lord Cromwell lost his head to an incompetent hatchet man who had to swing several times before the head was fully severed. King Henry was not pleased by the German wife (this would be number four) that Cromwell had found him, and he was no doubt irritated by his councillor's heavy-handed evangelicalism. (Cromwell may have been a reformer, but he was not a nice guy.) Besides, the king was infatuated by Catherine Howard, niece of the duke of Norfolk, a leader of the Catholic faction and ipso facto an enemy of Cromwell.

That said, the novel's plot is entirely invented, as good historical fiction should be; and this novel is exceptionally well-crafted with its strong characters; intricate, page-turning plot; and evocation of the sights, sounds, and smells of 16th-century London. Mysteries abound: Who pushed Ralph into the well? Why won't Elizabeth talk? What is being hidden in the well? What is dark fire? Why are all these people being killed? What's the connection with vodka? Can anybody be trusted?

Well, Shardlake can be--though he sometimes has a hard time realizing that his employees are human being with needs of their own. Guy, the dark-skinned apothecary, is solid. Joseph, the kindly uncle, is thoroughly good. And Barak? Oh, just go ahead and read the book.

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