Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom: A review

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)Lamentation by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last previous book in C.J.Sansom's excellent series set in the Tudor era in England was called Heartstone and was published in 2010. Thus, I have been waiting impatiently for almost five years for the next entry in the series. I'm delighted to say that it was worth the wait.

Lamentation is the sixth book in the series and it takes us to the end of the long and eventful reign of Henry VIII. The year is 1546 and Henry is slowly and painfully dying. It is a time of fear in the realm because of the hunt for heretics. If they are found, they are doomed to a ghastly death.

The religious struggle is between those who believe in the transubstantiation of the elements of the Holy Eucharist - that the bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ - and those who do not believe that, and those who do not believe are considered the heretics. Around the throne, Henry's Protestant and Catholic councillors are engaged in a deadly struggle for power. Whichever side wins that struggle will control the government for the present and probably for the future when Henry is gone from the scene.

Henry's wife at this time, his sixth, is Catherine Parr, a Protestant. She becomes a focus of the religious struggle as Catholics seek to create a breach in the relationship between the king and queen. They fear her influence on the man.

Catherine, for her part, has played into her enemy's hands, providing them with a weapon against her. She has written a manuscript entitled Lamentation of a Sinner. It is a radical and incendiary document, which, if it came to the king's attention, could be the ruin of the queen and those who support her.

But the king doesn't know about the manuscript because the queen has kept it secret, locked away in a strong box in her bed chamber. Then, inexplicably, the manuscript is found to be missing. Someone has managed to steal it. If it falls into the wrong hands, the queen may be doomed.

The queen and her chief supporter, her uncle, reach out to an old admirer of the queen's to help them solve the mystery of the theft and recover the manuscript. The shrewd hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, is called to the court and given his assignment: Find the manuscript. Contain the potential disaster. Save the queen.

Shardlake takes on the mission willingly.

After one page of the manuscript is found, clutched in the hand of a murdered printer, he investigates the man's murder, which ultimately leads him to uncover a group of Anabaptists, who want to do away with government and society as presently constituted, and practice Christianity as it was at its beginnings, with all goods and property held in common and shared equally. One by one, other members of that group turn up dead, murdered. But Shardlake is no closer to finding the manuscript.

Meantime, Shardlake's practice of law continues with his other cases, one of which involves a family dispute so charged with hatred that it threatens to consume all the parties involved.

Shardlake, realizing that he needs help in fulfilling his assignment for the queen, asks his young apprentice, Nicholas, and his long-time assistant, Jack Barak, to assist him. But will that be enough to deal with the forces that are arrayed against him?

As always, Matthew Shardlake is the humane center of a story that otherwise is peopled by characters who practice unthinking cruelty in the name of political expediency. Through his eyes, we see the people of 1546 England, both high and low - those who struggle for mere survival and those who float through life blissfully unaware of any struggle, except the struggle to climb the ladder of influence in the king's inner circle. It is a chilling, meticulously researched portrayal of life as it was lived in that society and, unfortunately, it has some sad parallels to our own modern society.

C.J. Sansom's prose draws the reader inexorably into this tale and makes one feel a part of it. It's a book that is very hard to put down, even when one has read the last sentence, in which we find Shardlake being carried downriver by barge on his way to a new assignment, this time for the Lady Elizabeth, described as "the least important of the King's children."

And now the waiting begins for the next installment in this fascinating series. Perhaps we will meet that "least important" child again.


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