Category Archives: historical fiction
Have I been sleeping for the past five years? I can’t think of any other reason why I’ve been so totally oblivious to the series of historical thrillers by S. J Parris that feature a 16th century heretic philosopher and spy called Giordano Bruno. Apparently Bruno did exist – (if you’re ever in Rome go and look out his statue in the Campo de Fiori). He abandoned his life as a monk, swapping cloisters in Italy for the fringes of the English court where he became friends with the poet Sir Philip Sidney and part of the ring of spies employed by the Queen’s closest advisor Francis Walsingham. This pair seem unlikely heroes but since they made their appearance in 2010 they’ve featured in five novels and a novella all of which have earned critical praise and avid readers.
Treachery is book number four. It transports us to Plymouth in 1585 where St Francis Drake is about to embark on a voyage to the New World. There is a lot riding on this voyage, not least the chances of a fortune for the travellers and their backers, and of course the Queen who needs to bolster her coffers in case the Spanish launch an invasion attack. But the voyage may be doomed before it ever sets sail. A sailor is found dead in his cabin and Drake needs to keep the suggestion of foul play from reaching the ears of his crew. He also suspects the killer isn’t yet done. “If I am right, there will be more deaths. Ending with my own, if he is not stopped,” says Drake.
Fortunately Sidney and Bruno happen to be in the city at the time, having been despatched to wait for a Portuguese royal exile and escort him safely to London. Who better to sort through the cast of suspects and manoeuvre their way among prostitutes, scholars, booksellers, apothecaries and priests to uncover the truth?
There is plenty to delight in this novel. As the amateur detectives bustle through inns, whorehouses, wharfs in search of a murderer they climb trees, leap out of windows and scale ladders to escape death. It’s a fast and furious narrative that kept me turning the pages. Amid the drama there are some fascinating period details (though unlike many an author of historical fiction Parris doesn’t bash you on the forehead with all her research material. Instead we get gems such as the poisonous effect of nutmeg (go easy on you next cake making session or you might get some unexpected results) and moments of humour. She knows that many readers will be familiar with the historical background so there’s little need to waste time on explanations; she can get straight on with the action.
Comparison with the C.J Sansom series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is inevitable. Both turn on impossible feats of strength and endurance; both feature leading men whose personal beliefs put their own lives in peril but Parris is a better writer than Shardlake so has the edge for me. A gripping and fun read, Treachery is the perfect book to take on a long flight or to the poolside.
Sovereign is the third title in a series relating the escapades of Matthew Shardlake, a 16th-century lawyer afflicted by a hunched back but blessed with an astute mind. He needs all his wits about him if he is to keep his head on his shoulders amid the dangerous forces of the court of Henry VIII. Plenty of other people have already lost theirs as a result of plotting against the King. Not a pleasant prospect but preferable to the fate meted out to some conspirators who were tortured then hung, drawn and quartered or dangled in chains from the castle ramparts until they died, ever so slowly.
It’s the rotting body parts of these failed conspirators that greet Shardlake when he arrives in the city of York. He’s there with his sidekick Barak to make sure one conspirator is kept in good shape until he can be taken to London for an appointment with the king’s skilful torturers. The city is in turmoil as it awaits the arrival of Henry, and his young wife Catherine (wife number five). The King is undertaking a royal progress to bring the rebellious north to heel and impress upon them just who is in charge of the realm. His visit is supposed to quell all possibilities of another insurrection but Shardlake discovered there is another plot afoot among a faction who disputes the King’s claim to the throne.
The story involves considerable manoeuvring as Shardlake tries to keep the prisoner safe, discover the identity of a murderer and find out who is behind the conspiracy all the while trying to avoid getting himself killed. It’s all good fun and very readable even if sometimes improbable that a man with Shardlake’s affliction has the physical stamina he is called upon to exert.
The real beauty of Sovereign, as with all the others I’ve read in the series, is the level of authenticity C. J Sansom brings to his narrative. This is a warts and all version of Tudor England; a country where northerners view those from the south with deep suspicion and hostility and the great edifices of the Catholic Church are torn down to be recycled as manor houses for those looking to increase their wealth and power base.
Sansom gives us fascinating insight into the exhaustive preparations needed to support the King on his travel through the land. It took an army of courtiers, soldiers, cooks, labourers and clerics to get the entourage from A to B and fed, watered and bedded each night. But those problems are as nothing compared to the challenge of dealing with basic bodily needs as one official confides to Shardlake.
‘Everywhere we stop vast pits have to be dug. With three thousand people, five thousand great horses you may imagine?’
‘Cannot the local people use the dung for manure?’
‘There was far more than they need. And the stink, you can imagine… Even with the pits, all the roads from London to Hull is littered with rubbish. It has been a nightmare.’
Far from a regal procession this is the progress of a force that spreads disease in its wake, personified in the figure of the King himself. The year is 1541 and Henry is no longer the upright athletic figure of his youth. Sansom makes us see the huge bulk of a man with “red jowly face, fringe of reddish grey bead, a pursed little mouth under a commanding beak of a nose and small, deep,set eyes.” We hear his voice which humiliates and humbles his subjects. We smell the stench of decaying flesh that oozes from his suppurating ulcerated legs and cringe at the image of him bedding his very young, fragile new bride.
The episode in which the crookbacked lawyer comes face to face with the King, is a tremendous set piece in which Sansom’s talent for period detail becomes clear. His Shardlake novels are rigorously researched but it seems none more so than with Sovereign. Sansom was so frustrated by the differences in historians’ accounts of the Royal Progress of 1541 that he wrote his own academic paper on the subject. The product of this is an episode which reflects the theatricalities of which Henry was enamoured as well as the mercurial side of his character.
This is a novel in which its easy to lose yourself in the world of sixteenth century politics and life. Just be glad that you can easily escape the reality of the smells, the basic bathroom facilities and the dangers to your head simply by closing the book.
Sovereign is published in the UK by Pan.
My reviews of other novels in the series are via these links:
Dissolution (book number 1)
Dark Fire (book number 2)
Lamentation (book number 4)