I’ve reviewed more C.J. Samson books this year than any other author. Just got into the guy and couldn’t stop. From Heartstone to Winter in Madrid to Sovereign, he kept me going. Now it’s Dark Fire. Chronologically it’s the first in the series of Shardlake, the humpbacked lawyer and his investigations into matters surrounding the affairs of the time and environs of Henry VIII. Winter in Madrid is a Spanish Civil War tale, and a different matter entirely. I sort of wish I’d read the Shardlake tales in order, but it’s a small regret indeed.
The title refers to Greek Fire, a substance used by the ancients in a flame-throwing device. It could, purportedly, toast a ship or a regiment in a trice. The formula was lost somewhere along the way, but it’s suddenly reappeared–or at least a sample of the chemical itself has–and the king wants it badly. Enter Shardlake, who not only has to solve the mystery of a young lady falsely accused of murder, but to find the formula or die trying. There are deadlines attached to both projects, and plenty of people doing their best to 1) beat the king to the formula, and 2) kill anyone who gets in the way.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s the potent moral question of whether this kind of weapon should be turned loose on the world at all. Will it be used for good or ill? And upon whom? It’s a sort of Medieval atom bomb question, and the dilemma feels quite modern, ancient as it is.
It’s called Dark Fire because the substance itself is black, but also because its effect is, potentially, as evil as evil gets. This is probably the best of the three Shardlake’s I’ve read, and there wasn’t a dud in the mix anywhere. Super stuff.