Friday, May 22, 2009

FitG Update: Dark Fire, Sovereign

I'm finally able to cross two books off my Fill-in-the-Gaps Project list: Dark Fire and Sovereign. I've been a little bit of a slow reader lately, but I did enjoy C.J. Sansom's historical mystery series. The plots were compelling (I guessed who the murderer was in Dissolution, but he fooled me in both Dark Fire and Sovereign) and I loved the setting: Henry VIII's England.

Dissolution and Dark Fire are both set in Cromwell's England, a time period I didn't know very much about. Sovereign is set a few years after Cromwell's execution, during Henry VIII's infamous progress to York. All three books immerse us in the bloody intrigues and conflicts of that time period. Henry has become head of the church, beheading papists and Anabaptists right and left, and Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer protagonist with a sharp eye for detail and a talent for solving mysteries, finds himself tangled up in it all, first working for Lord Cromwell and later for Archbishop Cranmer.

I like Shardlake as a protagonist and as a detective. At the same time, oddly, if anything struck me as unbelievable in this series, it was him. He was too modern in some of his thinking, which I thought spoiled the realism. However, I don't blame Sansom for making him modern. It would be hard, if not impossible, for modern readers to relate to a full-blown sixteenth century character. Our cultures are too different. This was a day and age when people were hung for stealing and had their fingernails pulled out for their faith; a time period when the King was attempting to rule the religious roost, claiming to be God's chosen one, and using brutal force to make the British people comply. Most of us can't relate to that in the modern world. I think Sansom needed to give his readers someone they could empathize with, someone who wasn't as bloodthirsty and dogmatic as most men of standing seemed to be in that day and age. The fact that Shardlake is a hunchback makes his modern, inclusive views more understandable. He has spent his whole life as an outcast; it makes sense that he would have learned to think independently too.

It wasn't until I was looking up links for this post that I realized Sansom wrote a fourth book in this series: Revelation. It's not on my FitG list, but I may have to squeeze it in. I'm curious to find out what could possibly motivate Shardlake to get involved with politics again. From the beginning of the series, he's been trying to get these men of power to leave him alone, to let him lead a quiet life. But they always have other plans for him. In Henry VIII's England, where blackmail and intrigue abound, even an unassuming lawyer doesn't get much of a choice in how he spends his time.

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