First Sentence: I did not want to attend the burning.
These are troubled times in England as the religious factions struggle to determine who will control the Government and the danger of being accused of heresy is still present. Even Queen Catherine Parr isn’t safe. When she finds the book she wrote, “Lamentation of a Sinner,” missing from a locked chest within her chamber, she calls on the aid of her faithful follower, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, to find it for her before her enemies can destroy her.
Sansom doesn’t just describe a scene, he makes you part of it through the descriptions and Matthew’s thoughts—“I looked out from the mullioned window where I allowed Agnes to install some beehives and cultivate a herb garden….The birds were signing and the bees buzzed round the flowers, everything bright and colourful. However, he also makes it very clear that this is not a time of peace and placidity. Sansom’s description of the burning of heretics is also very vivid, and makes clear that this is a time of great danger, when books were forbidden and destroyed; and heretics hunted down, tortured and killed.
This is a time of religious conflict between Rome, King Richard, the Sacramentarians, and the Anabaptists. The whole story of the religious upheaval and the division among the factions is complex yet fascinating. Sansom does an excellent job of presenting the information clearly, and very much makes the point about the danger of the time in which the story is set, and the cost of combining religion with government. At the same time, he is meticulous about relating the details of the period—“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you a area gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.” The descriptions of clothing, jewels, and the palaces are exacting and are offset by the areas wherein reside people such as Matthew, and those of the lower, and lowest, classes.
Sansom is very good at introducing—or reintroducing, to the followers of the series—his characters. He ensures one knowing how each fits into the story and Matthew’s world. It is also extremely helpful that the book includes a “Principal Dramatis Personae.” The characters are fully-dimensional. Matthew is certainly interesting. He is a hunchback who has been bullied, a man who has seen war—“…whenever I saw soldiers now I thought of my friends who had died, as I nearly had myself…” a lawyer, a man who is pragmatic, yet one with tremendous loyalty to Queen Catherine Parr. He is also fallible; both in actions and decisions.
Each of the characters contributes significantly to the story. There is a strong subtext of loyalty, friendship, and the cost of both. The descriptions of King Henry VIII in the last stage of his life is sad and an example of extreme excess and illness.
The first hundred or so pages are rather slow reading, but they are critical for understanding the period and the danger. However, when one gives oneself over to them, they are also rather fascinating, and certainly informative. From there, the story picks up quickly and the length of the book quickly becomes irrelevant and unnoticed.
“Lamentation” is not a story of palaces. It is a story filled with history, danger, sword fights, death, suspense and plot twists; it is all here. There is even a rather fascinating secondary plot which serves to relieve a bit of the tension and serves as a diversion from Royal intrigues.
LAMENTATION (Hist Mys-Mattthew Shardlake-England-1546) – VG+
Sansom, C.J. – 6th in series
Mulholland, Feb 2015