Book review: Lamentation by C.J.Sansom

Fear and suspicion are two of the most dangerous human emotions, and particularly when they are swirling in a poisonous mist around the court of the slowly, painfully dying King Henry VIII.
Lamentation by C.J.SansomLamentation by C.J.Sansom
Lamentation by C.J.Sansom

Religious reform is gathering momentum but traditionalists would see the country returned to the arms of Roman Catholicism… and the punishment for heretics is burning at the stake.

Tudor England has never seemed so vibrantly alive and viscerally authentic than in the pages of the terrific Shardlake novels and after a four-year wait, C.J.Sansom’s mild-mannered, middle-aged, hunchback lawyer makes a magnificent return.

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Lamentation is the fifth book in an extraordinary series which takes us as close as it is possible in fiction to the political and social realities of 16th century life.

At the centre of the action is Matthew Shardlake – a senior London barrister and a man with connections to the throne – and through his eyes we have witnessed some of the most tumultuous events of Henry’s troubled reign.

Here, we are swept back to the last months of the king’s life as power-hungry vultures circle in anticipation of a Regency for eight-year-old heir Prince Edward, and the fall-out from religious strife threatens to tear apart the country.

In the summer of 1546, the king is dying but it would be treason to openly suggest his days on Earth are nearly done. Behind the scenes, however, his Protestant and Catholic councillors are engaged in a final and decisive power struggle to control the future government of Henry’s son Edward.

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As Bishop Stephen Gardiner hunts heretics across London, and the radical Protestant Anne Askew is burned at the stake, conservative Catholics focus their attack on Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife and a keen religious reformer.

When Shardlake is summoned to Whitehall Palace to help his former mentor Queen Catherine, he learns that the now beleaguered and desperate queen has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, which is so radically Protestant that if it came to the king’s attention it could threaten the lives of both her and her sympathisers.

The book has been stolen from a locked chest in Catherine’s private chamber and only one page of it has been found… clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer.

Shardlake’s investigations take him from the back street print shops of London into the dark and labyrinthine world of the politics of the royal court, a world he had sworn never to enter again.

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Love and loyalty to the queen will drive him into a swirl of intrigue inside Whitehall Palace where Catholic enemies and Protestant friends can be equally dangerous, and the political opportunists, who will follow the wind wherever it blows, the most treacherous of all…

Sansom is a master of research, turning historical fiction writing into a literary art form as he melds scintillating Tudor history with gripping whodunits, mysteries and thrillers.

Lamentation evokes the menace and terrifying religious uncertainties of the latter years of Henry’s reign with such imagination, detail and heart-stopping emotional intensity that it reads almost like a contemporary account.

Henry, weakened by ill-health and festering ulcers, is now just a dark, dying shadow but his dangerous religious vacillation has left the country in a perilous vacuum, prey to the ambitious, the unscrupulous and the fanatics.

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Shardlake is a simply brilliant creation, allowing us a window onto both lethal court politics and the concerns of the ordinary man and woman.

Humane, intelligent and obsessively cautious, the wily lawyer forever treads a precarious path, trying desperately to hold onto his principles without losing his head.

The next chapter in his eventful life can’t come too soon…

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)

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