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: “Sovereign” by C.J. Sansom

27151979When one thinks about a royal Progress, we often think about the glitz and glam of the royal family traversing the entire country at a leisurely rate to inspire awe for their subjects. However, the Progress of 1541, when Henry VIII and his fifth wife Catherine Howard traveled to the hostile northern part of England, was anything but a casual visit. It was very political as Henry was trying to make the North submit to him after the Pilgrimage of Grace while at the same time he was waiting for a meeting with King James V of Scotland. It is the city of York and during this important Progress that C.J. Sansom shapes his latest adventure with his hunchback lawyer and part-time detective, Matthew Shardlake, in book three of the delightful Shardlake series, “Sovereign”.

We join Matthew Shardlake and his dedicated assistant Jack Barak on the road to York to join the Progress to take care of local petitions for the King. They have received another complicated mission from their new boss, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, to look after the wellbeing of a suspected conspirator in a plot to overthrow Henry VIII’s government, so that he can make it to London for further questioning. Things seem to run as smoothly as it could until a master glazer’s mysterious death reveals secrets that will send Shardlake and Barak into a deadly collision course with some of the most powerful men and women in England during this time.

Sansom has done it again. He has expanded Shardlake’s world outside of London to show that England was not all united for the Tudors. As someone who knows about the Wars of the Roses, to read Sansom’s description of the treacherous and rebellious city of York makes sense completely. It is dark and edgy while the glory of the court is on full display. To add more intrigue to this amazing novel, he adds the mystery of a certain member of the Yorkist family’s origins that could change England forever. I personally do not agree with this theory about this particular person’s origins, but it did not take away from my enjoyment of this book. It just added another layer to this enthralling tale.

Of course, since this novel touches on the relationship between Henry VIII and Catherine Howard, Sansom had to include a way for Shardlake to meet these two, as well as confront figures like Lady Rochford, Culpepper, Dereham, and of course Sir Richard Rich. The way he does this is ingenious. Sansom’s attention to details of the Progress is nothing short of extraordinary. Compared to the first two books, this one is much darker as you are unsure how Shardlake and Barak will ever get out of their dangerous situations, but that is what makes it so remarkable.

It is actually difficult for me to write this review without spoiling the ending so I will keep this short. I thought that “Dark Fire” was my favorite in the series, but now “Sovereign” reigns supreme. That might change as I read the rest of this absorbing series. I will say that if you enjoyed the first two books, you have to continue the journey with Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak in “Sovereign” by C.J. Sansom.