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While Edith Pargeter's Brother Cadfael lived in a neat, just-desserts world, Master Shardlake's is altogether messier -- morally and physically.

Book Review: Sovereign by CJ Sansom

Everything we know about the morality and behaviour of Tudor times suggests that we would find the character of many of the people then — certainly those battling their way in the cutthroat world of the royal court — unattractive. Yet CJ Samson, in creating his detective character, the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has found a way around this problem. The man whose deformity is often openly mocked and even causes superstitious fear — the credible genuinely believe that seeing a person so deformed will cause bad luck — is sensitive to other's pain. He also cannot react to difficult and dangerous situations by whipping out his sword, as your average Tudor man would have done – in fact is believably a lot more like us than almost any other Tudor character might be.

Master Shardlake makes his third appearance in a novel simply entitled Sovereign – appropriately enough, since while the massive figure of Henry VIII hovered menacingly in the background in the first two novels, here he is centre stage, dominating the thoughts of everyone, even in his absence, as he leads the great Progress of the North of 1541. Still seeking to avoid becoming entangled in the intrigues of the court, Master Shardlake is lured into a delicate mission by Archbishop Cranmer. He is to protect a valuable prisoner, who knows secrets that could shake the foundations of the throne, until that prisoner can be taken to London for the hideous but calculated ministrations of the professional torturers in the Tower of London.

A man who can't even face watching a bear-baiting, Master Shardlake is troubled by this, as he also tries to deal with the recent death of his father. Sansom develops the lawyer's character beautifully, although he's less sure in his handling of female characters. Here Tamasin, a young woman of the court, an orphan having to look out for herself, is central to the plot – becoming entangled, it seems to the point of marriage, with Master Shardlake's rough clerk and oft-time bodyguard, Barak. The lawyer is understandable uncertain about her, but as we only ever see her from his point of view, she never really develops.

The physical reality of early modern life – the clothes, the smell, the severed heads on spikes above town walls – are, however, all beautifully laid out, and the detailed research behind the novel is evident in the accounts of the run-down, angry city of York — still seething after the "Pilgrimage of Grace" rebellion a few years before.

The politics of the court, its intrigues and maneouvres, are also, so far as this reader can tell, closely based on historical reality, where it is known, and the fictional additions are well-crafted. We know, of course, what is going to happen to the king's young fifth wife, Catherine Howard, but that adds to, rather than detracts from, the suspense. And the traditional final twist at the end of the novel is beautifully done.

I complained when I reviewed the second novel in the series, Dark Fire, that Sansom's writing style sometimes grated, and here it has definitely improved. Fewer individual words grate, and while sometimes the research shines through just a little too much, it now feels more integrated into the story.

It is perhaps just a little too early to start talking about Sansom in the same breath as the great historical novelist Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters), but he is certainly heading in that direction. But while Pargeter's Brother Cadfael, created in the 20th century, lived in a neat, just-desserts world, Master Shardlake's is altogether messier — morally and physically — suiting today's tastes.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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