Thursday, 20 February 2014
Dark Fire - C J Sansom
I have to admit that I have difficulty remembering which of Sansom's Shardlake series I've already read, which is why I'm reading the second novel after having already read the third (Sovereign) and fourth (Revelation). That's not to say that they're forgettable - anything but. I blame the short, slightly abstract titles - while they are all relevant to the action, I find I have to really think to figure out which plot was which from the titles alone.
Dark Fire is about the rediscovery of the deadly weapon, Greek fire, in Tudor London, with (as always) a murder investigation thrown in. Hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake navigates a political minefield, caught between Thomas Cromwell and the factions seeking his overthrow.
Sansom balances mystery, action and intrigue perfectly, with a tempo that draws you in and keeps you hooked throughout. At over 500 pages, this isn't a short novel, but it's one you never want to put down. He creates three-dimensional flawed but mostly likeable characters, even where historical cameos are concerned.
One of the things I really love about this series is the way the historical setting is conveyed - the descriptions have a really tactile quality which places you firmly in the bustling, stinking, dangerous city that is 1540s London, and contemporary events are integrated seamlessly. You never feel like you're having a history lesson, but you come away feeling as though you understand and have experienced life in that time in a way plain facts can never give. I find reading historical novels one of the most effective (and enjoyable!) ways to learn about history - on my masters course we were actually recommended Ellis Peters' wonderful Cadfael series as a way to learn more about Medieval legal administration.
Dark Fire definitely doesn't disappoint - it's gritty, engaging, and keeps you guessing right until the end, without the solution to the mystery being so convoluted you feel you never had a chance to figure it out. If you're a fan of history or mystery novels (you can tell I'm sleep-deprived because I find it very funny that that rhymes), I wholeheartedly recommend the entire Shardlake series. I've still got number five (Heartstone) to read, and am looking forward to it immensely.
Next up: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger