Lesley Sharrock (Author of one of my favorite novels, The Seventh Magpie) told me when I reviewed Heartstone that it was not the best of C. J. Ransom’s Shardlake series about a Henry VIII era hunchback lawyer-crimsolver. Once again. She was right, just as she was right to recommend Samson in the first place. Not to dwell on the comparison. Sovereign may be better, but Heartstone is no slouch of a novel either.
Shardlake is stuck in York. He’s been sent by Archbishop Cranmer (one of the few church notables to survive H. VIII’s purge of church and wives) to see to the well-being of a prisoner accused of treason because they want the guy in good enough shape so that when the experts in the tower work him over, he’ll be in good enough shape to answer questions. So far he’s stayed mum, and the theory is that the provincials don’t have the skills to extract the needed info nor to provide the security necessary to protect him to get back to London.
Henry’s coming to York (we’re in 1541) with a huge procession and his latest queen, Catherine Parr, whom Samson paints as a rather flighty adolescent who’s in way over her head. Of course her predecessors have also proved to be in over their heads as well. As long has they had heads to be in over, at any rate. Shardlake’s also been assigned some legal work connected with the procession. He’s to prepare briefs so that locals can present their cases regarding land and other such matters to the King to decide.
So Shardlake and his clerk (one Jack Barack. No relation, of course, but the last name is a bit of a speed bump. No fault of Ransom’s.) set to work. Naturally, none of it works out as it’s supposed to. York is cold and hostile to “southrons” as well as to Henry for a host of reasons. He’s cleaned out the monasteries. In fact the biggest building for miles around, the holy Minster in the city center, has been turned into a stable and is having its stained glass windows removed. The Yorksters also feel they’ve not received their share of royal largesse. Lots of bad blood. The prisoner Shardlake is supposed to guard is getting sick and wasting away. Repeated attempts to murder our protagonist create constant anxiety and an inability to trust anyone. Barack gets romantically involved with one of the queen’s entourage (the same girl he’s married to in Heartsone, so this is a prequel.) You wouldn’t think true love would be so bad, but there are class differences and other complications that make it not only objectionable but dangerous.
So, we wait for the English king, who, it turns out, waits for the Scotch king. Murder is in the air, as is the danger of royal disfavor, a matter of life and death in and of itself. And there’s a plot against the crown in which Shardlake . . . But let the story speak for itself. A reviewer has no business spoiling the reader’s pleasure by revealing details of the mystery.
It should be enough to say that these novels compare favorably with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. You’ll find yourself right there in that Medieval world and be very glad you took the trip.