There are days, those dark days, when you sit down and realise that you’ve had the same meal for three days …
I’ve just sat down and realised that the last three books I’ve read are all historical fiction.
Bring Up The Bodies by Mantel, Pure by Andrew Miller and now Sovereign by C. J. Sansom.
Sovereign is the third of the Matthew Shardlake novels and certainly stronger than its predecessor Dark Fire. Dark Fire revolved around the – frankly preposterous – notion of a vastly powerful flammable chemical being unearthed by Henry VIII’s agents. Here, the plot is more human and credible.
Well, “plot” isn’t quite right: plots, plural. There is the original plot device of Shardlake being dispatched to York to meet up with the King’s Northern Progress in order to hear legal cases; and, almost incidentally, to ensure that a captured traitor, Sir Edward Broderick, remains alive until he can be transported to London to be tortured. The moral dilemma of ensuring a man remains alive solely to face torture and execution are raised through the book but not exactly delved into.
Once placed in York, Shardlake is in the vicinity when a glazer is killed. A box of suspicious papers are found in the dead man’s house. The papers are glimpsed by Shardlake before he is knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant who flees with the papers.
In the words of Lemony Snicket, a series of unfortunate and deadly and – increasingly bizarre – incidents befall Shardlake as he becomes the victim of repeated assassination attempts. These may or may not be connected with the papers in the box.
Meanwhile Jack Barak – the Watson to Shardlake’s Holmes – starts a dalliance with a girl in the Queen’s employ; Shardlake befriends a local Yorkist lawyer; the Queen becomes embroiled with gossip; plots multiply and intertwine and writhe around each other. And at the heart of the novel is the King, the Sovereign of the title, the focus of the rebellion.
It is the massive mouldering image of the king that dominates the novel’s imagination despite the scarcity of pages devoted to him. We only see him once as the Progress reaches York’s Council at Fulford Cross. And even then we see only fragments due to Shardlake’s grovelling before him. We hear his voice humiliating the lawyer, we see his height and bulk; we smell the rot of his ulcerating rotting fetid noisome sore on his leg. The image of him rutting upon the child-like Queen Catherine is mentioned more than once. The stench of the King’s injury is recalled when trying to identify a poison later.
And the prophecy of the downfall of Henry VIII describes him as the Mouldwarp.
What has always concerned me with historical fiction is still here. I like my history to be accurate: I am nervous about looking an arse by trotting out some fiction as historical fact at a quiz someday!! And I like my fiction to be real – to give the sense of a real place and real characters living and loving and breathing through it. With the exception of Henry’s leg, I didn’t feel the reality of the world despite the small details mentioned such as Shardlake’s steel mirror and the rather laboured use of the word “shit”.
I did, however, feel quite a shock on the plot twist when Shardlake returned to London and I was quite surprised by how concerned I felt for him.