Although I reviewed C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation” about two months ago, I hadn’t expected to review another one of his novels so soon. But, a family member found a copy of Sansom’s 2010 novel “Heartstone” in a charity shop and thought that I might like it. And, since this was one of the few Shardlake novels that I haven’t read, I was eager to read it.
So, let’s take a look at “Heartstone”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.
The year is 1545 and England is under threat from the French fleet. In London, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake finds himself involved in several cases. A random descripton from a friend of his from a previous case, Ellen Fettiplace, makes him curious about the dark secrets that have caused her to become agoraphobic.
Not only that, the Queen has summoned Shardlake. The son of one of her servants has hanged himself. Shortly before his death, he was investigating an adopted boy – Hugh Curteys- in Hampshire who he had tutored several years ago before being mysteriously dismissed from service. After returning from Hampshire, he believed that something terrible was going on inside the household and wished to lodge a legal complaint. The Queen wants Shardlake to take over this case and see if it has any merit.
So, with war looming, Shardlake and his faithful assistant Barak set off for Hampshire and Sussex in order to unravel these mysteries….
One of the first things that I will say about “Heartstone” is that, although it is fairly slow to start, it is one of the most gripping Shardlake novels that I’ve read. Not only does this book have a rather ominous atmosphere, but there is a complex network of intriguing mysteries and plot twists that will have you turning the pages in morbid fascination to find out more. Seriously, despite the slow-paced beginning, this is as much of a thriller novel as it is a detective novel.
Another thing that I will say about this novel is that, being from Hampshire myself, it was absolutely amazing to see so many familiar place names in this book (eg: Portsmouth, Portsdown Hill, Petersfield, Gosport, Horndean, Cosham, Portchester, Southsea Castle etc..).
Seriously, I don’t think that I’ve ever read a novel set around here before – and it was such a cool experience. Then again, as soon as the Mary Rose was mentioned, I instantly knew what was going to happen to it (after all, I’ve seen what’s left of it in a museum. Plus it is mentioned in Sansom’s 2014 novel “Lamentation” too).
In terms of the detective elements of this story, they are utterly brilliant. Not only is there an intriguing network of mysteries (seriously, at one point, Shardlake is investigating at least three different deaths that happened in three different places), but they are all connected to each other in all sorts of clever ways too.
As you would expect from a C. J. Sansom novel, the detective elements of the story are also tinged with a grim sense of horror that will keep you reading out of morbid fascination. And, this is where this novel really excels. For example, Shardlake spends quite a bit of time in a manor house that teems with dark secrets and hidden threats. To call these parts of the novel suspenseful and atmospheric would be an understatement. Seriously, if you can get through the slow-paced beginning of the story, then you’ll be utterly gripped for the rest of it.
The novel’s settings and background are really interesting too. Not only is there a tangible sense of threat from the French fleet (even if you already know how the history plays out), but the novel also focuses on things like the horrors of conscription and war, the poverty of the time and the religious politics of the 16th century too. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, large parts of this novel are set in Hampshire too 🙂 Although the main location in Hampshire (Hoyland Priory) is fictional, there are enough mentions and descriptions of real places to make this element of the story absolutely fascinating.
The characters in this novel are absolutely stellar too. In addition to quite a few familiar faces (eg: Shardlake, Barak, Guy, Tamasin etc..), the novel has a fairly large cast of well-written background characters too.
One of the things that both Sansom’s Shardlake series and G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels do really well is to show how people are realistically affected by events and live complicated lives, even when living in a more ignorant age. Likewise, since Shardlake finds himself embroiled in several mysteries, there are lots of dramatic and suspenseful dialogue exchanges too.
In terms of the writing, it is also brilliant. Like in the other novels in the series that I’ve read, Shardlake’s first-person narration is written in a way that has a bit of a historical flavour but is “matter of fact” enough to be extremely readable. In other words, it is a really good balance between modern-style and old fashioned-style narration. Not only does this lend the novel a lot of atmosphere, but it also means that the narration never gets in the way of the gripping story.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel isn’t quite perfect but is still good. Although, as mentioned earlier, the first part of the novel (at least the first 100 pages, if not more) is far too slow-paced, the rest of the novel is an absolutely gripping, suspenseful and expertly-paced detective thriller story. And, the rest of the novel is quite long. The main story is a gargantuan 626 pages in length, with a few pages of historical notes afterwards. Yes, the story is atmospheric and most of it is fairly gripping, but I wish that it had been trimmed down to at least 500-550 pages.
All in all, this is a brilliant novel. If you like dark, suspenseful and gripping detective stories, then you’ll love this one. If you want to read a novel set in Hampshire, then you’ll love this one. If you like historical fiction, then you’ll enjoy this novel too. Yes, the beginning of this novel is rather slow-paced and the story goes on for a long time but, these flaws aside, this novel is astonishingly good 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.