60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
C. J. Sansom's "Sovereign" is the third mystery in this critically acclaimed series featuring Matthew Shardlake, a thirty-nine year old lawyer, and his assistant, Jack Barak. The author demonstrates his prodigious historical knowledge as he traces Henry VIII's Great Progress to the North in 1541. Along with Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, a large number of soldiers, and members of the nobility, Henry and his retinue made their way from London to York with the goal of bringing the king's discontented northern subjects under control. Archbishop Cranmer sends Matthew Shardlake on the trip to process petitions for the king and to safeguard an important prisoner who is to be interrogated in the Tower of London. Matthew travels with a heavy heart, having recently buried his father, whom he had neglected. With the money that he will earn from this mission, Matthew hopes to pay off his father's remaining debts.
After the Progress finally reaches York, a glazier falls off his ladder and is impaled on fragments of glass. Shardlake quickly realizes that this was no accident. There may be a conspiracy afoot against Henry; papers hidden in the glazier's house would wreak havoc if they were to fall into the wrong hands. Since Matthew caught a glimpse of these papers, he becomes a target and narrowly escapes repeated attempts on his life. Meanwhile, Jack Barak has found love; he is smitten with a pretty young woman, Tamasin Reedbourne, who works in Queen Catherine's household. Matthew and Jack join forces to discover the identity of the killer and to uncover a secret so explosive that it could bring down a mighty monarch.
The strength of "Sovereign" lies in the author's exhaustive attention to historical detail; Sansom immerses the reader in the political, religious, and cultural events of Henry VIII's reign. Tudor England was filled with ruthless individuals who committed immoral acts because of their lust for power, a desire for wealth, and religious fanaticism. Scenes of cold-blooded murder, torture, and suicide reflect the violence and desperation of those volatile times. There is a contemporary flavor to the novel's themes; the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Matthew Shardlake is as admirable and likeable as ever. He has an abnormally curved back which makes him the butt of cruel jokes, but his deformity has not robbed him of his self-respect. His keen intellect and determination propel him to disregard his personal safety in order to bring a murderer to justice. Shardlake and Jack make a solid team: Matthew has experience, a thorough knowledge of the law, and patience; what Barak lacks in seasoning and judgment he makes up for in loyalty, courage, and strength. Jack looks up to Matthew, who has taught the younger man to venerate learning and behave with integrity.
Ironically, the initial strength of the novel ultimately becomes its undoing. The author gets carried away with his verbiage, and the novel soon becomes repetitious and tedious. At nearly six-hundred pages, "Sovereign" would have profited from careful pruning. The large cast of characters is too unwieldy to allow for much shading, and the impact of the mystery is diluted because of the many subplots that compete for the readers' attention. Although "Sovereign" is packed with fascinating information and colorful atmosphere, it would have been far more satisfying had it been more streamlined and better focused.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
It seems that everything related to the Tudors and Reformation England is really trendy now, which I'm loving, since it was my major in college. Somehow I managed to miss these mysteries thus far, but I'm definitely ordering the first two right away.
Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer in London who is sent to York ostensibly to handle legal petitions when the King visits on his great Progress; but also on a clandestine assignment from the great Archbishop Cranmer himself - to guard over a prisoner's well-being so he can be safely taken back to London and face the experts in the Tower who will administer his interrogation.
Chaos ensues early on when a glazier is murdered and Shardlake overhears a dying man's last words that may have secret meaning. When attempts are made on Shardlake's life, it seems no one can be trusted and everyone is a suspect.
I really enjoyed this book. It really helped that I have a fair amount of knowledge of the subject matter - I think that would be important. As much as the dialog tried to give backgrounds and histories, I think I would have been really confused if I didn't know a lot of the history. As it was, it took all my effort just to concentrate on all the many characters.
The book is fairly long (though absorbing), so be prepared to dedicate a certain amount of time to this book, and don't start reading it if you have other stuff going on. You're going to want to read this as much as you can until the last of the 650+ pages.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2007
This is the third adventure of the author's invited protagonist, the lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. It's not only the best one so far, but it is also a perfect example of an historical novel. Not only does the the period at the beginning of the end of the reign of Henry VIII come alive in crisp detail, but also the daily life of the professional and lower classes is the backdrop. Hollywood prefers to tell stories set in the past only through the eyes of the ruling classes, so we get gorgeous clothing and fairy tale castles that seem to have central heating and air condioning for the comfort of their beautifully coiffed inhabitants who to a person have flawless skin and excellent health. C.J. Sansom shows us that the lives of all of the classes of society can be measured by who has more of less. A literally decaying while alive Henry VIII suffers from leg ulcers that ooze pus and stink close-up, court ladies wear thick white make-up for formal occasions that today would be called clown-like. Gentlemen reach for their swords and daggers at the drop of an insult or a perceived affront. Religion is politics and politics, in the mioddle Tudor period, was religion.
The best aspect of this novel is that it is seen trhough the eyes of Sansom's main character,a hunchback lawyer, who has brilliant deductive powers and an almost photographic memory, in the service of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the only fully developed "famous" historical figure in the story.
The very poor term, smellovision, might best describe this all too brief sojourn into the year 1541, but I use the term intending it to be a positive comment on Sansom's skill to let us re-live and breathe-through a scented linen cloth, hopefully, the mid sixteenth century.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2007
This is the third Matthew Shardlake mystery and while I recommend reading them in order, the novels largely stand alone. Matthew Shardlake has two missions in York: the first is to assist with legal petitions to the King, the second is a secret commission on behalf of Archbishop Cranmer.
As participants in Henry VIII's progress to the north of England in 1541, Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak are part of the final episode of 'The Pilgrimage of Grace'. The Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) was the worst uprising of Henry VIII's reign and was a direct result of the dissolution of the monasteries.
Henry VIII was not popular in the north, and the setting is perfect for the latest set of adventures of Matthew Shardlake. This novel is an interesting blend of history and fiction delivered with gritty realism.
Recommended to all who like mysteries based in history.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Of his first book "Dissolution" in this series Dame P.D. James writes, "The sights, the voices, the very smell of this turbulent age seem to rise from the page.... C.J. Sansom can lay claim to a place among the most distinguised of modern historical novelists." With such praise, of course, how could one miss. And this praise was for Sansom was for the first book! His following two certainly shouldn't disappoint Dame James (nor any other reader). In "Sovereign" Sansom extends the Henry VIII saga (in a much more detailed accounting. My copy has 660 pages!). In addition, he dedicates it to Dame James, herself a highly skilled and worthy author of British suspense.
In this episode we find our hunchbacked barrister, Matthew Shardlake and his trusty assistant Jack Barak, on a mission with the Great Progress, Henry VIII's foray into York with thousands in his retinue, including an army and its followers. Shardlake is on a secret mission under the auspices of Archbishop Cranmer (Cromwell has been deposed (actually beheaded) the year before. Henry and his minions are drastically trying to eliminate any and every one who oppose him, religiously or otherwise. By this time, Henry has established himself as the head of the Church of England, a protestant movement, one which sees Catholicism anathema to the crown "and to the future of England."
At the heart of this secret mission is Shardlake's responsibilty to see that a key captive and conspirator, Sir Edward Broderick, is kept alive and safe for a trip to London, whereby he will be placed in the Tower and proper confessions will be extracted (the Tower has "means" for such activities, as one knows from history). But all is not so simple. Court intrigue, religious fanaticism, human cruelty and human weakness, fraud, deceit--you name it--enter the picture. Of great import is the existence of secret documents that question the legitimacy of Henry's crown. One can imagine how interested the king would be in this matter!
Early on, Shardlake is presented with a death he deems murder, and the novel picks up steam (and pace) from this point on. Of course, as this is a medieval murder mystery, it's not surprising that more deaths are discovered, more intrigues and court games are revealed, and the pieces of this literary puzzle begin to fall into place. Sansom is clearly in charge of the story and at no time does it get away from him.
Despite its length, "Sovereign" is spell-binding, even mesmerizing, and Sansom seems to have improved with age, as this third in the trilogy seems his best written; it is more carefully laid out with better characterizations. The author continues to lambast Henry's zeal and the ugliness of such zealousness. The reader has no difficulty seeing the metaphor extending throughout history. That said, of course, he does not shortchange his characters or their fictional input. One understands that this is a fictional take on what "might have been." Still, though, it's convincing and accurate enough. One can only hope for a fourth in the series.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2007
I normally don't write reviews, but I read them to help me determine if I will enjoy a book. I only write them if I feel a book is TRULY misrepresented by reviews and I'm trying to save my fellow readers from making the same mistake I did - wasting money and time! But I have enjoyed the three Matthew Shardlake mysteries so much, I feel I must add my voice to the chorus of praise. I recommend "Sovereign" highly, along with "Dissolution" and "Dark Fire", the first and second in the series.
I've always been a mystery buff, and for the last several years, historical mysteries have been my favorite genre. Ellis Peters, Bernard Knight, the Catherine LeVandeur series, anything by P.C. Doherty, Elizabeth Peters, Victoria Thompson, Jane Jakeman, I.J. Parker, etc. - I read all periods of historical mysteries, and enjoy "weightier" novels like this one (storyline, not physical size, although this one qualifies in both categories), as well as those blending history, mystery, humor, even a touch of romance - as long as they are well-written with memorable characters, I will give them a try. This series is truly a standout; once again, I am amazed at C.J. Sansom's gift for bringing alive the paranoid, almost claustrophobic world of Matthew Shardlake in Henry VIII's England. While the common folk struggle under the twin burdens of heavy taxation and overzealous religious reformers trying to stamp out any rebellion or trace of the "old religion", anyone even remotely connected to the snake pit of Henry's court struggles to stay a step ahead of vicious gossip, betrayal and a trip to the dreaded Tower. Meanwhile, Henry goes through wives and courtiers, a spoiled tyrant desperate for an heir (at the point of this novel, he was desperate for another male heir - his "spare").
As other reviewers have noted, Sansom keeps the action moving despite the Progress being stalled in York as Shardlake tries to stay alive and solve the mystery. The author uses this "endangered man alone in a crowd" device skillfully to ratchet up the tension as the protagonist sees threats around every corner of the crowded city, burdened under the strain of the King's visit and seething with resentment. I only hope this isn't the last in the series - these are wonderfully drawn characters, and I felt Sansom used them well, as he has throughout the series, to truly illustrate the burden placed on the shoulders of "ordinary people" trying to live their anonymous lives as the mighty struggled for power.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Sansom is fast earning a spot on my "grab" list. You know: the authors who are so unrelentingly excellent that you'd grab any book with their name on it, without even looking at the rest of the cover. He's that good, at least in this series about Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer who is trying (unsuccessfully) to live a quiet life at the edges of Henry VIII's England.
(Catherine Howard is queen, which gives you some sense of the time period.)
Shardlake is given a plum assignment, to take care of some legal matters during the King's progress to York. He's also given an uncomfortable addendum: there's a prisoner in York who needs to be kept alive until he can be brought to the Tower of London for questioning (i.e. torture). So Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak, head to York... and almost immediately (this being a mystery after all) come across a dead body.
As in the previous novels in this series, the immediacy of the place is fabulous. You smell the stink of the stable, taste the dull but filling potage, get the sense of what it was like to live in that place and time. The storytelling is great; my guesses for whodunnit were all wrong, and the true answer made perfect sense. And I really like this character.
Unlike many such books, you could read this one as a standalone. It'd be better if you read the earlier books, certainly, but you don't need most of the backstory for this to work. (And if you like Phillipa Gregory's books about the same era, particularly The Boleyn Inheritance, you'll really like this one.) This isn't a light read -- it's full of court intrigue and has a large cast of characters -- but it's extremely enjoyable.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak are sent to York to ensure the welfare of a prisoner being returned to London for interrogation. Matthew is also to assist with processing legal partitions King Henry VIII during the King's Progress to York. When local glazier is killed, Matthew and Jack uncover a locked box containing several papers, including a genealogical chart. Before Matthew has a chance to review all the papers, he is attacked and the box taken. Other attacks follow and Matthew must uncover who is behind them and what is the secret that could topple a King's throne.
Sansom has a talent of writing both a very good, suspenseful mystery while involving the reader in the life and politics of the time. Rather than portraying a romantic view of historic England, Sansom conveys the harshness of living conditions, the brutality of the justice of the time and the unrest and uncertainty due to Henry's striving for an heir and causing the religious division of the time. Matthew is a wonderful character with a strong belief in doing what's right, he's nicely offset by Barak greater willingness to bend the rules. Matthew is also a very human character who can be stubborn, petty and jealous. Although the dialogue is a bit awkward at times as it is strictly neither period nor modern, only a couple times did I find that distracting. This is a series I read in order, but if you enjoy history brought to life, I highly recommend Sansom.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
The final years of the reign of Henry VIII are beset by plots against the throne and a restive north, chaffing against the king's penchant for taxation, the religious conflict between papists and reformers a constant source of tension. To quell yet another threat and obtain York's obeisance since their last rebellion, Henry undertakes a great progress from London to York, his latest wife, Catherine Howard, at his side. Matthew Shardlake, an attorney, has been tasked with helping sort through the petitions presented to the king when the progress reaches York. To this end, Shardlake prepares to leave, accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak. Meanwhile, Archbishop Cranmer calls the hunchbacked lawyer into private consultation, entrusting him with a private mission: to monitor Sir Edward Broderick, a prisoner involved in the latest conspiracy; held in York, Broderick must be delivered to London for torture, the information he holds so explosive that his exposure must be kept to a minimum.
Shardlake agrees to the archbishop's assignment because he is in dire need of funds to clear the property of his newly decreased father, arriving with Barak in York to find the prisoner tortured and emaciated, supervised by the fanatical Fulk Radwinter. Reluctantly, Radwinter agrees to Shardlake's oversight, but continues to psychologically harass the prisoner. While approaching the assigned lodging, Shardlake stumbles upon a murder, an elderly glazier, Master Oldroyd, impaled upon the broken panes of stained glass windows he is removing from the church, denuded of papist artifacts by order of the king. Sleuthing about the glazier's house, Shardlake and Barak discover secrets better left in the dark, a conspiracy against Henry that will put the attorney in danger for his life numerous times. Reporting to Sir William Maleverer, Shardlake is viewed with suspicion and no little rancor.
While Barak romances a comely young woman in the queen's household, Tamasin Reedbourne, Shardlake consults with his contact in York on the cases to be presented to the king. Shardlake takes advantage of Giles Wrenne's antiquarian library, a source of shocking revelations about the conspiracy, the target of more than one attack on his life. But who wants to kill him and why? By then, Shardlake, Barak and Tamasin have been witness to a scandal that may ultimately endanger them all, one not all related to Shardlake's original mission. Slogging about the rain-soaked tent city and through the narrow streets of York, Shardlake and his companions lead us on a merry chase, pursued by villains and malcontents, greedy schemers and a royal scandal that will see Matthew in the tower for interrogation. Spinning multiple plots, Sovereign paints a fascinating picture of Henry's volatile reign, the conscientious Shardlake the beneficiary of the ire of everyone he crosses. Luan Gaines/2007.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2007
It's an interesting installment in the further adventures of Matthew Shardlake, hunchback and lawyer. This happens in 1541, during King Henry VIII's progress through the North of England to overawe and subjugate his rebellious subjects. There is much for them to rebel over, the poor are crippled by heavy taxes and the rich are benefiting from the dissolution of the monasteries. Catherine Howard is Henry's current wife and things are starting to get a little rocky.
Matthew Shardlake is in York for two purposes. The first is to process some local legal work for the king and the second is on a mission from Archbishop Cranmer to ensure that a certain prisoner survives to questioning and his almost certain execution.
He stumbles on the death of a stained glass artisan and this sets in play a series of events that lead to several attempts at his life. To survive he has to discover what the conspiracy is, but knowledge can also be dangerous.
It's just that bit too detailed. Some of the assumptions and language are a little too modern, but that could be excused for legibility. There are few modern readers who would be able to get through a full novel of Tudor English. I found myself losing track of the events because of the detail but the detail added hugely to the sense of place of the novel. By the end I was happy to have read it but left with some sense that it could have been tighter.