Historical fiction writers have a very difficult road it seems to me. On the one hand they need to be historically authentic. Dialogue that feels completely modern will feel out of place. On the other hand, the reader shouldn’t be overburdened with anachronism.
On the whole, C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series just about hits the sweet spot. This is my review of the third in the series. Each are stand-alone pieces but if you’ve not read anything in this series I’d still begin with Dissolution.
Fantasy writers have similar concerns. If you want to read an excellent discussion on style and fantasy, get your hands on a copy of Ursula le Guin’s From Elfenland to Poughkeepsie. I think a lot of her insights can also be applied to historical writing.
Speaking of fantasy literature, my only fantasy for the year seems to have been The Hobbit and a Terry Pratchett that I’ve yet to finish. Quelle horreur!
Happy reading, folks.
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It is the spring of 1543. Henry VI seeks Catherine Parr as his sixth wife. Matthew Shardlake is promoted to Serjeant at the Court of Requests thanks to Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer and the reformist faction at court meanwhile follow Henry’s pursuit of Catherine with interest as she is known to have reformist sympathies. Radical lay preachers prophecy the coming of the Apocalypse, and Bishop Bonnor in London seeks to rid England of them with a new round of heresy trials.
A serial killer’s victims are murdered to fulfil the vision of Revelation 16, in which angels pour onto earth the seven vials of God’s wrath. Each killing is more gruesome than the last. Meanwhile, a young man incarcerated in the Bedlam Asylum will be burned as a heretic unless Shardlake can uncover what has unhinged his mind.
This is the darkest of the Shardlake novels so far. As fear casts its shadow across England, so too shadows fall across friendships. Matthew and Guy, Barak and Tamasin are estranged as trust fails and tragedy strikes. But author C. J. Sansom is increasingly comfortable in his chosen milieu. In general, he conveys the flavour of Tudor England without resorting to anachronism. Occasionally a piece of dialogue feels out of place, such as Matthew’s ‘Back to square one’ when his investigation runs up a blind alley. The notion of a serial killer in Tudor England may sound unconvincing but the unfolding sequence is handled skilfully.
The plot perhaps rambles along rather too much for some tastes, but for me it it’s an important part of the immersion. It’s a mild antidote to the prevailing gloom that stops Revelation from becoming a piece of Tudor noir. It’s perfect reading wither you’re on the train to work or curled up on a comfy couch with a fine wine. I’m looking forward to Heartstone very much indeed.