Matthew Shardlake returns as the London lawyer reluctantly linked with Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII’s reign. In 1540 King Henry is about to seek an annulment from Anne of Cleves, a wife he claimed he couldn’t consummate his marriage with because of her bad appearance. This was a marriage Cromwell encouraged, and then failed to find a way of avoiding when requested by Henry. In this tense political environment, Cromwell’s enemies close-in, and he must avoid any more disappointments to The King, as Henry firmly lies the blame for the disastrous marriage firmly at Cromwell’s feet. Or should I say head – ouch?
Word comes through to the Royal Court that an ancient weapon of ‘Greek Fire’ has been found in one of the former monasteries, now abolished. The conspirators want a sum of money to hand over the Greek Fire and its secret. Cromwell promises King Henry a demonstration of this newly discovered weapon in two weeks’ time. This is Thomas Cromwell’s only chance of redemption and a way to get back into favour with the King.
Meanwhile, Shardlake is attempting to defend an old friend’s niece, Elizabeth Wentworth, from a murder charge. A charge she will not appeal against and remains silent. Shardlake is losing the case when an offer of a reprieve of 2 weeks is made by Cromwell if he journeys to the monastery to secure the Greek Fire and make all necessary arrangements. The multiple political, personal and professional forces at play in this story are incredible, and it is pulled off with excellent narrative accomplishment. The story is totally captivating and full of tense threatening moments and competing forces that take politics and espionage to a deadly level. And it just gets more formidable when the two conspirators are found dead.
While the period at the Royal Court is one full of deception, high drama, treachery, intrigue and politics, this is transposed to the background of the case involving Matthew Shardlake and his companion Jack Barak. Jack is physically capable and much more aligned to the darker side of life in 1540’s England, while Matthew is almost the opposite as an astute, articulate and observant hunchback lawyer. This makes for a great complementary team and it feels much better balanced than the partnership in the first book – Dissolution. The case is full of surprises and hurdles to negotiate that takes Shardlake and Barak to be permanently alert and call on all their reserves of resourcefulness.
Sansom provides a superb atmosphere for this narration including sounds, terminology, smells, and dialogue, all of which transports you to that era. The images of London are really interesting as we see it during its development to becoming a major city.
I would highly recommend this book and it is best read in the correct sequence of the series.