Book Series Review: The Matthew Shardlake Series by C.J. Sansom

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.

Characters

Matthew Shardlake

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.

Jack Barak

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.

Guy Malton

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

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.

Historical Figures

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.

Cases

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.

The Details

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.

The Future

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.

Conclusion

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.

Dissolution:https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/06/06/book-review-dissolution-by-c-j-sansom/

Dark Fire:https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/06/20/book-review-dark-fire-by-c-j-sansom/

Sovereign: https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/07/05/book-review-sovereign-by-c-j-sansom/

Revelation: https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/07/21/book-review-revelation-by-c-j-sansom/

Heartstone: https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/08/04/book-review-heartstone-by-c-j-sansom/

Lamentation: https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/08/22/book-review-lamentation-by-c-j-sansom/

Tombland: https://adventuresofatudornerd.com/2020/09/21/book-review-tombland-by-c-j-sansom/

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?

Book Review: “Lamentation” by C.J. Sansom

27263493._SY475_The year is 1546 and England is once again in turmoil. Rumors swirl that the once-mighty King Henry VIII is gravely ill and his councilors, both Protestants and Catholics, are vying for power to see who will help Henry’s young son, Edward when he becomes king. With such distinct factions, those are not Protestant or Catholic, like the Anabaptists, are deemed heretics and they are hunted down. Executions over faith, like the death of Anne Askew, run rampant across London. Those who own books that were deemed “controversial” were under a shroud of suspicion. When Matthew Shardlake’s main supporter, Queen Catherine Parr’s book Lamentation of a Sinner, goes missing, Shardlake must navigate the religious divide carefully to retrieve the missing manuscript before it is discovered. Can Shardlake and his friends save the queen from the heresy hunt in time? The stakes could never be higher in C.J. Sansom’s sixth Shardlake novel, “Lamentation”.

If you have been following my adventures with this series, you know it quickly is becoming one of my favorites. Of course, I wanted to read this novel, but when I found out that it involved Catherine Parr and one of her books, I immediately had to jump back into Shardlake’s world.

Sansom begins his sixth novel with Shardlake witnessing the execution of Anne Askew. The introduction alone made me a bit squeamish, because of its intensity. The way he described this event cemented how real the consequences were for those who were on the wrong side of the religious divide. Shortly after this horrific event, Shardlake is giving a new mission by his patroness, Catherine Parr. Someone has stolen the manuscript of a very personal book that she wrote, Lamentation of a Sinner, and if should fall into the wrong hands, the queen may be executed like Anne Askew. Since Shardlake is fond of the queen, he cannot allow this to happen, so he embarks on a secretive mission to retrieve the manuscript, which leads him on a collision course with some of the kingdom’s most illustrious and powerful men, including his arch-nemesis, Sir Richard Rich.

To top it all off, Shardlake has another case, because the man can never take things easy and tackle one case at a time. This time, it is a sibling squabble over an inheritance and a painting. However, this is not just a simple case of sibling rivalry as the brother and sister share a dark secret that will radically change the course of this case and their lives forever.

I feel like the previous Shardlake novels have had an element of danger, but this book amplified the danger level immensely for our intrepid lawyer and his friends. I think the secret-keeping that Matthew had to do and the relationship between him, Guy, Barak, and a new assistant Nicholas Overton, was brilliant and heightened the drama. The last one hundred pages left me speechless. It was an incredible conclusion to a heart-racing novel.

I don’t know how Sansom keeps writing hit after hit, but he does. This adventure was mesmerizing in its complexity. There were so many times I thought I had the crime solved and Sansom threw another twist. I did not want this one to end because I know that there is only one book left and I am not ready to say goodbye to these characters that I have grown to love so much. If you are a fan of the Shardlake series, you must read “Lamentation” by C.J. Sansom, as soon as possible.

Guest Post: “The Colour of Shadows” Book Tour- Children’s Early Education in Medieval and Tudor England by Toni Mount

cover_proof crop2I am pleased to welcome Toni Mount back to my blog today as a stop in her The Colour of Shadows Book Tour. The Colour of Shadows is her eighth Sebastian Foxley murder mystery. Today, Toni will be discussing Children’s Education in Medieval and Tudor England. 

In my new Sebastian Foxley murder-mystery novel The Colour of Shadows, set in medieval London, some of the action involves a young scholar, Will Thatcher, studying at St Paul’s Song School in London. Song schools trained choristers – hence the name – for the cathedral to which they were attached. Since all the anthems and responses would be in Latin, this language was taught. In fact, children weren’t permitted even to chat with each other in English and everything was conducted in Latin. The ultimate intention was that every schoolboy would eventually become a cleric, priest, monk, or lawyer; professions carried out mostly in Latin, so an early grounding was vital. 

 But a child’s education began at home. By the time a boy – and the song school’s were always boys only – went to school, aged about seven, he should already know a few basics, so how did adults regard children’s early education in the fifteenth and sixteenth century? What was considered to be the correct way of raising and training children? Thomas Tusser, the Tudor commentator who generally gave parents good and sensible advice, as would have been applicable for the fifteenth century too, had this to say [I’ve modernised the spelling]:

We find it not spoken so often for nought,

That children were better unborn than untaught,

Some cockneys with cocking are made very fools,

Fit neither for prentice, for plough, nor for schools.

Teach child to ask blessing, serve God, and to church,

Then bless as a mother, else bless him with birch.

Thou housewife thus doing, what further shall need?

But all men to call thee good mother indeed.

This fascinating passage covers all that was required in educating a young child – a task undertaken most usually by its mother or, perhaps, by its nurse, if the mother wasn’t around. 

Cockney. We all know the word and these days we often use it to describe a Londoner. It used to be a little more specific, applying only to those born within hearing distance of the bells of St-Mary-le-Bow church in the city. However, as you’ll realise from Tusser’s instructions above, a ‘cockney’ was originally something very different and nothing to do with being born in London. A cockney was a boy-child, spoilt and coddled and therefore effeminate. ‘Cocking Mams’ were over-indulgent mothers whose children would be unsuited in future to being apprenticed, working the land, or even going to school. So Rule no.1 was ‘Do not indulge the child.’

 The first thing a child had to learn was the Lord’s Prayer or Paternoster, the Creed or Credo and, until the Reformation, when England became Protestant, the Hail Mary or Ave Maria. The Creed was the litany recited at mass, beginning ‘I believe in one God…’ At a baby’s baptism, the godparents had to promise, not only to keep their godchild safe ‘from the perils of fire and water’ but to teach him these basic recitations of the Christian faith. Since medieval times, these words, originally in Latin and often together with a basic ABC and numbers, were written on horn books. These weren’t really books at all but a sheet of parchment (later paper), covered with a transparent layer of horn to protect it, put in a wooden frame, shaped like a small, square table-tennis bat, complete with a handle, so the child could hold it easily. By Tudor times, they were more often written in English but these hard-wearing teaching aids often passed down the generations and were still popular in the eighteenth century.

Incidentally: a few words about godparents. From medieval times, child-birth had been a women-only affair. The mother might be in labour for days and need every encouragement from her female relatives, friends, and neighbours. These women also had to be on hand to stand as godparents at short notice, if the baby seemed unlikely to live and required immediate baptism. Godparents were also known as ‘godsibs’ or siblings in God. As you can imagine, a group of women, sitting around, waiting for days, perhaps, with not much to do, did a great deal of chatting and, as they ran out of relevant topics to discuss, probably resorted to exchanging rumours. This activity became known as ‘godsibing’ or – as we would call it – gossiping.

Children as young as three or four would be expected to attend church and to understand when to bow their heads or kneel in prayer and to reverence God. They would also join in family prayers with the household as often as the religious faith of the head of the house required. Many Protestant families took the act of reading aloud from the English Bible very seriously. It might be done daily or else, most certainly, on the Lord’s Day – Sunday. Thus, Rule no.2 was ‘Teach the child to respect God and the Church’.

Thomas Tusser’s final instruction would not be appreciated today: the use of corporal punishment. Beating children is now unlawful in most modern societies but the Tudors would have been dismayed by our idea. ‘Bless him with birch’, as Tusser said. In other words, a good thrashing never did anyone any harm and to ‘spare the rod’ was to ‘spoil the child’, as the Bible said. In the Book of Proverbs 13: 24, it states: ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him’. The Tudors certainly believed this. Physical discipline was thought vital to achieving both learning and good behaviour and children were expected to take it with good grace, even welcoming it as just one aspect of the best educational methods. It would teach them to respect authority. If a child misbehaved, there was no point in trying to reason with him because children were illogical creatures, as yet incapable of rationalising what was good conduct and what was bad. So Rule no.3 was ‘Do not be lenient: a beating does far more good than harm and is vital to a child’s education.’

One last thing: a medieval or Tudor parent would never have told a child that it was naughty. In those days the word meant you were ‘as nothing’ (naught), so wicked you were less than human. It was a term applied to murders. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was naughty; unruly toddlers were not.

Further reading:

Elizabeth Norton’s ‘The Lives of Tudor Women’ Head of Zeus, 2016.  

For images of horn books see https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/172262754469747824/

The Colour of Shadows

When Seb Foxley discovers a child’s body in his workshop and another lad goes missing, our medieval sleuth is perplexed at every turn. His investigations take him across London Bridge to Bankside, where he becomes embroiled in the sinister shadows of the city’s underworld. Bankside is a labyrinth of depravity and crime where every harlot intends the downfall of respectable men and every scoundrel has a secret. In a netherworld unlike anything he’s experienced before, can Seb unravel the murky mysteries of The Mermaid Tavern, recover the stolen lad and restore him to his family? 

About the Author- Toni Mount

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I’m an author, a history teacher, an experienced speaker – and an enthusiastic life-long-learner. I’m a member of the Research Committee of the Richard III Society and a library volunteer where I lead a Creative Writing group. I regularly give talks to groups and societies and attend history events as a costumed interpreter. I write for a variety of history magazines and have created seven online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com

I earned my Masters Degree by Research from the University of Kent in 2009 through study of a medieval medical manuscript held at the Wellcome Library in London. My BA (with First-class Honours), my Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing and my Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. My Cert. Ed (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich.

I have a strong online following with my various social media and web pages:

www.ToniMount.com

www.SebastianFoxley.com

www.facebook.com/toni.mount.10

www.facebook.com/medievalengland

www.facebook.com/medievalmedicine

www.facebook.com/sebfoxley

www.twitter.com/tonihistorian

My works to date include:

Self-Published

2007 The Medieval Housewife and Women of the Middle-ages

2009 (updated 2015) Richard III King of Controversy

2013 Dare they be Doctors.

Amberley Publishing

2014 (Hb) Everyday Life in Medieval London

2015 (Hb) Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: the mysteries of medieval medicine

2015 (Pb) The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Ages

2015 (Pb) Everyday Life in Medieval London 

2016 (Pb) Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science (the renamed paperback version of Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark)

2016 (Hb) A Year in the Life of Medieval England

2019 (Pb) A Year in the Life of Medieval England

2020 (Hb) The World of Isaac Newton

Pen & Sword

2021 (Pb) How to survive in Medieval England

2021 (Pb) An affectionate look at sex in medieval England

MadeGlobal Publishing

The Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mysteries series:

2016 The Colour of Poison

2016 The Colour of Gold

2017 The Colour of Cold Blood

2017 The Colour of Betrayal

2018 The Colour of Murder

2018 The Colour of Death

2019 The Colour of Lies

2020 The Colour of Shadows

2018 The Death Collector (A Victorian Melodrama)

MedievalCourses.com

2015 Everyday Life of Medieval Folk

2015 Heroes and Villains

2016 Richard III and the Wars of the Roses

2016 Warrior Kings of England: The Story of the Plantagenet Dynasty

2017 Crime and Punishment

2017 The English Reformation: A Religious Revolution

2018 The Roles of Medieval and Tudor Women

Book Review: “Dark Fire” by C.J. Sansom

28280675._SY475_The year 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII was a turbulent time. Henry’s new wife, Anne of Cleves, is not exactly the person who he imagined and his eye is starting to wander to a new woman, Katherine Howard. The reformers are starting to lose favor with the king as they and Catholics alike are being executed for treason. This is the London that Matthew Shardlake, our favorite hunchback lawyer turned detective, calls home. He thinks that he has retired from his detective work and serving Thomas Cromwell, but he is sadly mistaken. His next adventure has twice the number of cases and just as much danger that makes his trip to the monastery in “Dissolution” look easy. In the second book of the Shardlake series, “Dark Fire”, C.J. Sansom turns up the heat, the action, and the danger.

We join Matthew Shardlake during a busy season in his life as a lawyer. He is working on maintaining his legal practice, and his next case is a doozy. A young girl named Elizabeth is accused of murdering her cousin and it is up to Shardlake to defend her, even when everyone believes she is guilty of the crime. Just as he is adjusting to this new case, he gets a call from his favorite person who he thought he was done dealing with for a while, Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has a new case for Shardlake, to recover the lost formula for the mysterious Greek Fire, also known as Dark Fire. Cromwell knew that Shardlake would need some help with this new case, so he sends a new partner, the daring and resourceful Jack Barak. The only clue they have is someone from the Court of Augmentations found the formula in a dissolved monastery’s library, but when the person who had it and his alchemist brother are found brutally murdered, things get extremely complicated. Two separate cases that share the same deadline and the same amount of danger if Shardlake and Barak should fail to solve them. Can they solve both cases in time?

When I read the description of this book, my first impression was that C.J. Sansom was trying to cover too much in a book. I thought that there was no way that Shardlake could solve both cases in the time frame that he was given and that Sansom would focus on one case over the other. I was proven wrong as this book was beautifully balanced between the two cases while keeping the reader’s attention throughout the entire book.

Sansom made the Tudor London world come to life in this brilliant sequel. I thought the way he showed the struggle for power between those who had it and those who wanted it was masterfully done. He included some of my favorite characters from “Dissolution” in this book, which made me extremely excited and I believe that Shardlake’s new partner Barak was a stroke of genius. Their interactions were some of my favorites in this entire book and I cannot wait to see how he develops Shardlake and Barak’s partnership throughout the rest of the series.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It kept me guessing with both cases until the bitter end. There were so many twists and turns, revelations, and intrigue. There were some places where I think the pacing was a bit slower than the first book, but it did not detract from my enjoyment of this remarkable sequel. I did not want it to end because it would mean that I would have to leave this dynamic world with intriguing characters, until the next book. It was a sheer joy to dive back into Shardlake’s Tudor world and I honestly cannot wait to jump back into another Shardlake mystery. The first book made me fall in love with Shardlake, but this one made me fall in love with his Tudor world and the people around him. If you have read “Dissolution”, “Dark Fire” by C.J. Sansom is a must-read.