Have you ever read a historical fiction series that made you stop and think that the plots of the books could be possible? They make you question the way you look at the past and wonder why no one had ever written a series like it before. You feel like you are friends with the protagonist and his pals and you despise the nefarious villains that try to thwart the efforts of the heroes. You feel like the books are true escapism and that you can visualize the world that the author has created using a combination of facts and fictional ideas.
Now, I could be describing any number of historical fiction series, but this one, in particular, blew me away. If you have been following my blog or my page, you know that I am talking about the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom. The books are all unique, yet read in the chronological order that Sansom intended, shows the amazing progress of England through the reign of the Tudors and how these changes affected those living during this time. We follow the hunch-back lawyer Matthew Shardlake on seven of his more infamous cases, each one more dangerous than the previous one: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, Heartstone, Lamentation, and Tombland.
Before I jumped into this series, I honestly had never heard of it, except when people mentioned these books in posts that I asked my followers what they are reading. I do not normally read murder mystery novels, but since it was based in the Tudor dynasty, I decided to give it a shot and I wholeheartedly loved it. I am so glad no one spoiled this series for me. I might fangirl a bit during this review, but I will try my best not to spoil this series for anyone else. I want to discuss the different elements of this series that I have comes to enjoy. I would love to continue to discuss this series with those of you who have read it and have enjoyed it as much as I have.
Matthew Shardlake is our main protagonist in this series, aptly named after him. As mentioned above, he is a hunch-back lawyer who works hard to solve mostly murder mysteries. He fights for what he believes is right, even when times get tough. There are sometimes when he is not even sure what he stands for, especially when it comes to his stance on religion and if he supports those in power. He is constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes and for the most part, they don’t bother him. He fights against notorious enemies while defending his friends and those who cannot defend themselves. Matthew is unlucky when it comes to love, but that does not mean that we can’t help but root for him to find his happily ever after. There were so many times that I was not sure Matthew was going to survive, but Sansom’s plan for his loveable protagonist throughout this series was simply brilliant. A protagonist who I will never forget.
We are first introduced to Jack Barak in book two of the series, “Dark Fire”. He was a rogue working for the mighty Thomas Cromwell. He teams up with Shardlake for what seems like only one case, but the two men soon develop a lasting friendship, even when things get a bit rocky between them. In the third book, “Sovereign”, Jack is introduced to the love of his life, Tamasin. Their relationship will be tumultuous at times, but it is caring and it does survive the test of time. He is the bad boy turned family man that everyone loves. He does make stupid mistakes, but you cannot help but admire his tenacity.
Next to Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak, Guy Malton is probably one of my favorite characters. We are introduced to Guy when he was working in a monastery in “Dissolution”. Guy goes from a former monk to a well known and respected apothecary with his shop. He is unlike anyone who Matthew has ever met as he is a Moorish man turned Christian monk. I love the fact that Sansom went this direction to show how truly diverse the Tudor world was. Guy challenges Matthew when it comes to religion and what he believes is right when it comes to science. He is the wise old man that heals everyone’s wounds and is a comforting counsel when someone needs his help.
Nicholas Overton is Matthew’s young assistant in the last two books, “Lamentation” and “Tombland”. He comes from a wealthy family, but when a disagreement happens, he goes to work for Matthew Shardlake. He is young and naive but loyal to a fault. He believes that everything should be handed to him on a silver platter until life gives him a rude awakening call. We don’t get to see him develop as a character as much as the others, but I hope if Sansom writes any more novels, he includes Nicholas Overton.
Now, some characters are historical figures that make an appearance in the novels that left a lasting impression on me while I was reading. The calculating Thomas Cromwell, who was always trying to stay in his majesty’s favor and do his bidding until the bitter end. The dastardly Richard Rich, who I have always felt was a bit shady, but Sansom made me hate him even more. The legend himself, King Henry VIII, who is glittery and magnanimous to his people, but if you cross him, his true colors come out in full force. Catherine Parr, the scholar turned queen whose writings and her views on religious reform walk a fine line between what is acceptable and what is considered heretical. Elizabeth Tudor, the intellectual daughter of the king who has a similar temper to that of her father, but has a longing to help the Boleyn family in honor of her mother.
What is brilliant about Sansom’s series is that these historical figures are more background characters or they are villains. They are not the protagonists, as they are portrayed in other historical novels. The real heroes are the average people, reminding the reader that under all the glitz and glam of the Tudor court, there were regular men and women were trying to survive during such tumultuous times.
With such a remarkable cast of characters, Sansom had to put them through extremely difficult obstacles to test their limits and to give his readers a breathtaking look into the Tudor world. Whether it is the dissolution of a monastery, a race to find a mysterious flame, a radical killing based on the book of Revelation, or the sinking of the Mary Rose, Sansom takes us on a non-stop roller coaster of emotions. Just when you thought you had the case figured out, a monkey wrench is thrown into the mix and all of the sudden, our intrepid heroes are risking their lives because one of the villains knew that they were getting too close.
Since all of these novels revolve around murder mysteries, I think it is only right that we should discuss the murders themselves. In “Dissolution”, there is a typical advancement of murder to cover up the original crime. As the series progresses, you can see the wheels turning in Sansom’s head as he comes up with even more dastardly ways to kill off in his novels. There were points where I was starting to get concerned just from the graphic details of some of these deaths and executions. They will be engrained in my brain for a long time, which is a sign of how delightful Sansom’s writing style truly is, especially in this series.
As I mentioned before, what sets this series apart from others that I have read are those exquisite details. I think what helped is the fact that C.J. Sansom does have a Ph.D. in history, so he understands how important accurate facts are to historical fiction readers. The fact that Sansom decided to use his skills as a Doctor in History to write a Tudor historical fiction murder mystery series is awe-inspiring.
He was able to create a Tudor world that feels so real that you forget that you are reading novels. From scenic descriptions to the more gruesome accounts of horrific events, Sansom takes us on a trip to the past that we do not want to leave. We are craving more adventures after we finish every novel.
However, as I am writing this review, Tombland is the final book in the Shardlake series. C.J. Sansom is currently ill and I wish him nothing but the best in his recovery. These seven books make for a fabulous series, but Sansom has mentioned that he does wish for the series to go through the reign of Elizabeth I, which I would love.
As I was reading this series, I came up with some ideas for spin-off series to continue the adventures of Matthew Shardlake and his friends. For prequels, I was thinking that Sansom could either follow the adventures of Jack Barak working for Cromwell or Guy Malton as he learns how to be Moorish and a monk. Then there is the sequel, which I think would have Nicholas Overton as the protagonists and the children that we have seen grow up during this series. They could solve mysteries in the Elizabethan era into the Stewarts, bridging the gap between the two dynasties. I also think that if Sansom does write more novels with this cast of characters, it would be fun to explore other countries, in Europe or beyond, during the 15th and 16th centuries. I think it would expand the world for the readers and give them a taste of other royal dynasties and what else was going on in the world during the time of the Tudor dynasty in England.
I am so glad so many of you recommended that I should read this series. I would have never picked it up if it had not been for you. I now know why so many people love it. It is one of those series that you have to read from start to finish, even though each adventure is a treat by themselves. It is one of those series that I will reread soon so that I can visit Matthew Shardlake and his friends all over again.
I wanted to write this series review because the Shardlake series is easily becoming one of my favorite historical fiction series and I had a lot to say about it. I decided to leave major details of the individual novels out of this review so that those who are not familiar with these seven stunning, spellbinding novels can experience them for themselves without spoilers. If you do want to know how I feel about each book, I have included links to each of the reviews down below.
I want to leave the last part of this review for those who have read this remarkable series to discuss it. I know that is not a series that is often discussed, so I thought that you should have your say. What is your favorite book in the series and why? Who is your favorite character and why? Who is your favorite villain and why? Why do you enjoy this series?
13 thoughts on “Book Series Review: The Matthew Shardlake Series by C.J. Sansom”
My favorite is the first one, as we are introduced to Shardlake and a new look at how dissolution affected the monasteries. I, like you, appreciated viewing Tudor history NOT through the figures at court. I own the final book, but have not yet read it. I just don’t want to finish the series!
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I’ve read all the Shardlake books and got completely hooked. I found the plots and characters believable, authentic and didn’t find them predictable at all. I really fell in love with Matthew Shardlake a little bit – he’s such a well-rounded out character that by the end of the series you don’t really want to let go of him! I also love that the author refers to Henry VIII for example mostly by people gossiping or sending messages, we rarely see him through the stories in person (although he does make appearances, as do other important figures) – it’s exactly if we could time machine back to Tudor times, we’d hear more people talking about or gossiping about the king than see him in person. My favourites were Dark Fire and Heartstone.
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Slightly in mourning after finishing the series. Does anyone have any recommendations for something similar to read?
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I LOVE the Matthew Shardlake series! Other well-done historical mysteries include the “Brother Cadfael” series by Ellis Peter and the Owen Archer mysteries. by Candace Robb.
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I know this is a year old, but SJ Parris’s Bruno Giordano books are set roughly in the same historical timeframe and have other parallels too- there is a mystery or mysteries, real life characters like QE1s spymaster, Walsingham, Sir Philip Sidney etc figure prominently, there is extensive description of the goings on. And like Shardlake all the books have a single word title.
Absolutely carried away witj shardlake series but only came across them by chance in a charity shop Tombland and hearthstone and cant wait to get my hands on the series
In which one did Barak lose his hand?
Loved the Shardlake books, wonderful characters. So sad to close Tombland the final book. Will re read them all definitely. Thank you for these wonderful historical novels.
I bought my first Shadlake book, Dissolution at a bookshop in Durham during a visit to the UK in 2006. Finished it at night while there & bought Dark Fires for the trip home. Since then, I’ve bought each new Shadlake book as it became available. It saddens me to think Tombland might be the last. I’d donate bone marrow if it would help to keep C. J. Sansom around for another 20 novel.
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I dearly love Matthew Shardlake and the series!
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I had not heard of C.J. Sansom until we were in the airport in Australia. I saw the cover of Heartstone, was intrigued by the title and loved the cover, so I bought it. I read that, but made sure I read the rest in order. What wonderful stories, and they do give you a better insight into the Tudors than any history book. I would love to see the stories turned into a TV series like Cadfael. However, if badly done it would be a great disappointment!
I wish C.J. Sansom all good wishes and hope that his health improves.
I agree with the above comment regarding a tv series, however there is a fantastic BBC dramatization radio series that covers the first 5 Novels. Each episode is around 2hrs 15mins, full cast (not just a single actor reading). I can’t recommend these highly enough
Thanks for the info on the radio broadcast!
I’m a huge fan of this series and so sad to hear the author is unwell. I pray he recovers his full strength and fulfills his own wish to continue the series through into Elizabethan times.