Revelation By C J Sansom
Macmillan, $38, Reviewed by ANDREA JUTSON
C J Sansom’s Shardlake series is not only a vividly realistic chronicle of Tudor England, but an engrossing set of whodunnits to boot.
In his fourth Matthew Shardlake book, Revelation, the hunchbacked lawyer faces his most terrifying opponent yet – a madman who is killing lapsed Protestants in ever more gruesome ways. As Shardlake discovers, the manner of their deaths mirrors the prophecies of the Book of Revelation. To make matters even more alarming, the killings must be kept from the tyrannical Henry VIII, for fear the deaths are somehow related to his new love, Catherine Parr. Amid all the murders and politics, Shardlake comes to realise that the killer is also stalking him, targeting his friends and acquaintances.
At the same time, there is an intriguing subplot about a young Protestant reformer who may or may not be going mad, taking us inside the damp walls of the Bedlam hospital for the insane.
There is enough factual history here to delight the early-modern scholar, talking of the dissolution of the monasteries and the waning years of Henry’s reign, but it’s the characters who really make this book come alive. At times the characterisations can be off-putting, such as Shardlake’s moody assistant, Jack Barak, who neglects his wife in favour of whoring and boozing after the loss of their child. The good guys are never completely pure, even the otherwise saintly Brother Guy, a physician struggling with homosexual feelings towards his slimy apprentice that threaten to turn him against Shardlake.
As a lawyer and historian in his own right, Sansom creates a world that rings utterly true in all its dark detail, and his late medieval language seldom gets in the way of the story. A little more lightness is sometimes desirable, especially in poor Shardlake’s blighted personal life, and some passages seem repetitive and unnecessary, particularly at those points where Shardlake visits the Bedlam. Although it eventually ties in with the main story in the manner of all good detective novels, the subplot doesn’t move forward as much as it could, and becomes a bit tiresome in places, disrupting the flow of the book.
Otherwise there is very little to criticize about Revelation, a much more entertaining read than its bleak predecessor, Sovereign, and the next Shardlake novel is eagerly anticipated. Bring on the reign of Elizabeth.
Andrea Jutson is a South Auckland crime writer, reviewer and journalist. Her most recent book was Senseless, Random House.