(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAR 22, 2006)
"What do our lives matter?" she asked bitterly. "What are any of us but pawns in the schemes of the great?"
C. J. Sansom's stunning historical novel, Dark Fire, is set in Tudor England. The year is 1540, and Henry VIII is still in the process of dissolving the monasteries, after breaking with Rome and declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534. However, London is abuzz with rumors that Henry wishes to divorce his current wife, Anne of Cleves, and take Catherine Howard, a young and pretty Catholic woman, as his next wife. This would put Henry's vicar, Thomas Cromwell, in jeopardy, since he was the one who pushed Anne of Cleves on Henry in the first place. To secure his position with the king, Cromwell hatches a plan involving the hero and narrator of the tale, Matthew Shardlake.
Shardlake is an enormously appealing character. He is self-deprecating (describing himself as a "whey-faced hunchback lawyer"), loyal, compassionate, tenacious, and clever. One of Matthew's clients, Joseph Wentworth, asks Matthew to assist him when Joseph's niece, Elizabeth, is accused of murdering her cousin. Elizabeth refuses to defend herself, and in spite of Joseph's pleas, Elizabeth remains mute. She is imprisoned in a filthy dungeon, where she will remain until she undergoes a form of torture known as pressing. Matthew reluctantly takes the case, although he knows that he has almost no chance of saving the girl. When Cromwell intervenes to gain Elizabeth a temporary stay, Matthew becomes embroiled in a complicated scheme to help Cromwell secure the formula for a deadly substance known as "Greek fire." If Cromwell can present this weapon to Henry, it will secure the vicar's position and give Henry an enormous advantage if he goes to war against his powerful enemies.
What follows is an action-packed adventure in which the lawyer, assisted by Jack Barak, Cromwell's loyal servant, does everything in his power to find the formula for Greek fire. Matthew interviews everyone who may have valuable information, including whores, lawyers, sailors, and a beautiful and aristocratic lady whom Matthew fancies. Unfortunately, many of the witnesses turn up dead, and two thugs repeatedly attack and attempt to kill Matthew and Barak. Meanwhile, Matthew never stops trying to vindicate Elizabeth before her judgment day arrives.
Dark Fire is brilliantly researched and executed. Sansom's atmospheric descriptions capture the stench of London's cesspits and the decay of the decrepit hovels where the poor struggle to survive while the wealthy live in luxury. The author also explores the political infighting, corruption, and religious schisms that highlight the uncanny similarities between Tudor England and life in the present day.
Sansom is a master at creating three-dimensional characters. Matthew's closest friend is Guy Malton, a former monk who fled Spain with his Moorish parents. He is now a skilled apothecary who diligently tends to Matthew's psychological and physical ailments. Stephen Bealknap is a slimy and grasping lawyer who would cheat his own mother if there were profit in it. Barak is a profane but courageous sidekick; the young man earns the lawyer's grudging respect when the two fight side by side on more than one occasion. Cromwell is a ruthless man who grows ever more desperate when he realizes that his days may be numbered if he does not find a way back into the king's good graces.
My one quibble with this excellent book is its length. At five hundred pages, the narrative flags occasionally; Matthew questions the same witnesses once too often. Still, Dark Fire is a wonderful accomplishment. Sansom deserves kudos for his keen insight into human nature, fascinating account of political and religious intrigue, compelling and suspenseful plot, and lively and colorful characters. I'm hooked on Matthew Shardlake and I eagerly await the next installment in this outstanding series.
- Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Dissolution (2003)
- Dark Fire (2004; January 2005 in US)
- Sovereign (February 2007)
- Revelation (February 2009)
- Heartstone (January 2011 in US)
- Winter in Madrid (January 2008)
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- Murder by the Book interview with C. J. Sansom
- Reading Guide for Dissolution
- The Write Company review of Dark Fire
- Blogcritics review of Dark Fire
- MostlyFiction review of Revelation
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About the Author:
Christopher Sampson earned a Ph. D. in history and was a lawyer before becoming a full-time writer. His second novel Dark Fire won the 2005 CWA Ellis Peters Dagger Award.