I have been indulging myself in the last couple of weeks. Rob and I had a few days away in Amsterdam and Brussels – which has meant an awful lot of cheese and chocolate, a fair amount of art and lots of walking – and, since we were travelling by train, I was able to pack a book I’ve been looking forward to for ages. The new Shardlake is something I know a lot of our customers have also been eagerly anticipating – but at 650 pages of historical goodness I do hope they have been doing their weight-training before picking up their copy!
Shardlake is a great character. We have seen him grow and develop since his first outing – in Dissolution – and particularly in his attitude to religion. This is no surprise since the books cover the same time period, largely, as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and the complex political and religious changes of the age feature heavily. Shardlake’s life and career are tied up with those of the King, his Queens and various court figures: some, like Catherine Parr, are friends, others, like Sir Richard Rich, are openly antagonistic towards him. It certainly shows that C.J.Sansom studied history before he went into the legal profession – he obviously does lots of research on both the history and the law covered in the books – and yet the stories are real page-turners. My favourite sort of history is the type which is as easy as this to read!
It seems odd to worry about spoilers in well-researched historical fiction of this nature. We know what happened to Henry VIII, to Catherine Parr and to lesser figures like Anne Askew and Thomas Wriothesley. In the previous book in this series Shardlake spent some time on board the Mary Rose as it was being prepared for war – I spent a lot my time when reading it willing him to get off the ship (I knew it wouldn’t end well for the poor old Mary Rose). And I guess this is where the real beauty of historical fiction lies – the way our unknown heroes and heroines fit in to the actual history. Anyway, without giving too much away, Shardlake and his assistant Barak are both in great danger at various points in this novel – but it seems that, should Edward VI need any grisly murders solving, Shardlake will be around to investigate.
Murder and pathology have featured heavily in the previous books I have read by Ariana Franklin – about a woman doctor who mainly practices as an anatomist since custom means she cannot treat living patients – but they have also been set in a well-researched historical period. The latest volume, Winter Siege, is set slightly earlier during the anarchy surrounding Stephen and Matilda’s battle for the crown and, although the characters are all new, the initial fenland setting and the unflinching descriptions of brutal crimes are just the same. At first I was slightly disappointed – I really liked Adelia Aquilar, the female doctor – but in the end I was glad. Ariana Franklin died before this book was completed and it was finished by her daughter Samantha Norman. The style seems unchanged but I’m not sure I would have wanted a heroine I loved in the hands of any other writer. That said Norman has done a really good job here with great historical detail of both the nobility and lower classes and a terrific plot heavy on blood and sexual predation.
If you, like me, enjoy historical fiction then you will probably already know C.J. Sansom and be looking forward to Lamentation. I would also strongly recommend Ariana Franklin – who may not be as well-known but is well worth looking out for.