Well, it has been way too long since I last read a C. J. Sansom novel! During 2009-11, I read about three of Sansom’s “Matthew Shardlake” novels (“Dissolution”, “Revelation” and “Dark Fire”, I think).
But, for some reason or another, I didn’t get round to reading another one until a while after I got back into reading again and realised that second-hand copies of Sansom’s 2014 novel “Lamentation” were going rather cheaply.
Although the “Shardlake” novels all feature the same protagonist, they each tell fairly self-contained stories. So, you don’t have to read them in order (although it’s worth reading one or two other Shardlake novels before reading “Lamentation”).
So, let’s take a look at “Lamentation”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.
This is the 2015 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Lamentation” (2014) that I read.
“Lamentation” is a historical detective novel set in Tudor England during the year 1546. The novel begins with the lawyer Matthew Shardlake attending a burning of heretics in London. Although he dislikes the macabre spectacle, he is compelled to attend by his boss at Lincoln’s Inn. Whilst there, he meets a rather friendly lawyer from Gray’s Inn called Philip Coleswyn.
A while later, Shardlake learns that Coleswyn is on the opposite side of a rather acrimonious legal case between two siblings feuding over their mother’s will. But, before Shardlake can get too involved with the case, he is summoned to meet Queen Catherine Parr. A collection of her controversial private religious writings have been stolen and she gives Shardlake the secret task of recovering them before they are published or the King learns of their existence.
However, a fragment of the document is soon found near the body of a murdered printer and it seems like Shardlake’s investigation will be even more dangerous than he had originally thought…
One of the very first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, intelligent and atmospheric story, but one that could possibly have done with a bit more editing. Even without the 20-30 pages of historical notes at the end, this story is still an absolutely titanic 706 pages in length! Whilst the story makes use of this length to add atmosphere and to allow the story to flow at slightly more of a “realistic” pace, it would be an even better novel if it was 100-200 pages shorter.
Even so, the actual story itself is fairly solid. If you like detective novels, historical novels, legal thrillers, spy thrillers and/or political thrillers then you’ll enjoy this one. The plot is full of interesting little clues, cunning machinations and other such things. Plus, the novel occasionally contains short recaps of previous events that can help you to keep track of the story if you aren’t binge-reading this book and/or taking notes.
The story is also kept compelling through the use of several different types of suspense. In addition to a few moments of more traditional drama and/or action, this novel also focuses on the paranoid religious politics of mid-16th century England.
In short, this novel takes place during the later parts of Henry VIII’s reign. The official faith of the land is a conservative form of Protestantism, which still follows some elements of Catholic doctrine (such as transubstantiation). Of course, being 16th century England, anyone who doesn’t follow the official faith is in danger of being executed for heresy if they aren’t careful. Needless to say, many of the novel’s characters are either more radical protestants or at least sympathetic to their cause to some extent. This, of course, helps to add a lot of suspense to the story.
In addition to this, there is also a sub-plot about the legal case between two feuding siblings. Although, on it’s own merits, this is a reasonably well-written sub-plot that contains elements of mystery and horror, it has relatively little relevance to the main story. Yes, it affects the main story during a couple of moments but, for the most part, it’s just there as a reasonably large background detail. In other words, the novel would be a bit more streamlined and focused if this sub-plot was removed. The same could probably be said about a few of the novel’s other smaller sub-plots too.
In terms of the historical atmosphere of this story, it is as good as ever. The novel is filled with descriptive moments that really help to add to the ambience (even if they do slow the story at times, and may account for some of the story’s ridiculous length).
This historical atmosphere is also helped by Sansom’s brilliant narration too. Like in the previous Shardlake novels I’ve read, this one is narrated by Shardlake himself, and the narration uses a modernised version of the more “matter of fact” tone of non-fiction writings from the 16th century, whilst also adding the occasional historical word or idiom for flavour. This means that, although the narration richly evokes an older age, it is still very easily readable. And, given that this is a detective thriller novel, this helps the story to keep moving at a reasonably decent pace too.
Plus, as you would expect, this novel has a rather interesting cast of well-written characters. Some of these characters are historical figures (eg: Henry VIII, Catherine Parr, a young Elizabeth I etc..) and some of them are fictional characters. To the story’s credit, it is occasionally difficult to tell which is which. Likewise, even the clearly fictional characters still seem like realistic people from this time in history.
Plus, there are also a few familiar faces from the earlier novels too, such as Guy and Barak – although they are slightly more background characters this time round. Even so, Shardlake’s occasionally complicated friendship with both of them is an important part of the story and it is interesting to see how their lives both have and haven’t changed now that they are older. Not to mention that, to my cynical delight, Bealknap also makes an appearance too.
All in all, this is a really good historical detective novel. However, the novel’s length is a little bloated – which robs it of some of the sharp focus that I loved in some of the other C. J. Sansom novels I’ve read. Even so, it’s still a reasonably gripping book that tells a fascinatingly complex detective/thriller story that positively drips with historical atmosphere.
But, although this novel tells a self-contained story, it is a book that is best enjoyed after you’ve read a couple of other Shardlake books (such as “Dissolution”) since it is clearly aimed at fans of the series rather than new readers.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.