The year is 1549 and things are about to get very interesting in Tudor England.
Henry VIII has been dead for two years. His son by his third wife, Jane Seymour, Edward VI, is now king. Edward is eleven years old and his uncle, Edward Seymour, rules as regent and Protector.
The Protector has pursued a prolonged and essentially senseless war against Scotland which has led to economic collapse with hyperinflation which makes life even more difficult than usual for the poor. Moreover, after three good harvest years, 1549 threatens to be a very lean year in the countryside. The peasants are restless and rebellion is brewing.
In London, lawyer Matthew Shardlake continues to pursue his profession, now with his assistant Nicholas. Shardlake had been employed by various members of the Tudor regime over the years, lastly by Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr. Now his services are utilized by the Lady Elizabeth, Henry's younger daughter by Ann Boleyn, who is fifteen years old. Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, is thirty-three.
Shardlake is called to an audience with Elizabeth concerning a murder in Norwich. A woman named Edith Boleyn had been found murdered there in gruesome circumstances. Elizabeth had belatedly learned that the woman had approached her household seeking help but she had never been informed. Now the woman has been murdered and suspicion has fallen on her husband, John, who is a distant relative of Elizabeth's. She engages Shardlake to travel to Norwich to investigate the situation and ensure that justice is done and, if her kinsman should be found guilty of murder, she instructs Shardlake to request a pardon from the king.
By the time Shardlake and Nicholas arrive in Norwich, the restlessness of the peasants has found expression in open rebellion. Thousands have banded together under the leadership of Robert Kett and have established a camp on Mousehold Heath from which they issue requests for redress of their grievances. They rely upon the honor of the Protector and the king to deal honorably with them. Inevitably, Shardlake and Nicholas are caught up in this rebellion and in Norwich, they meet another friend: Jack Barak, Shardlake's assistant and friend for many years, is there working for the Court of Assizes.
The major part of the narrative of Sansom's book deals with what is known as Kett's Rebellion. It was only one of many such peasant rebellions that broke out around the country in the summer of 1549, but it was one of the largest. Sansom's extensive research shows in the minutely detailed descriptions of the growth of this camp, its organization, and Robert Kett's insistence on maintaining the forms of legality and his refusal to allow executions in the camp. Shardlake is drafted against his will as an advisor on the law as Kett dispenses justice. Meantime, Shardlake and Nicholas are still pursuing their investigation of the Boleyn matter and trying to ensure that John Boleyn is not hanged.
Sansom excels in his descriptions of the living conditions and social mores of the times. Those descriptions of the mud, the blood, the screams of the wounded, the rotting bodies, the shit, the flies, and the rats on the battlefields and on the streets and alleys of Norwich were enough to turn my stomach at times. But it was impossible to turn away from it. The aim of historical fiction, after all, is to transport the reader back to that time and give her a sense of what it was like to be alive then. Sansom does that very well. This book is well over 800 pages and it took me a week and a half of determined reading to get through it, but it was worth it.
That being said, I think the book might have been even better with a bit tighter editing. The transitions between the investigation of the death of Edith Boleyn and the rebellion on Mousehold Heath seemed rather disjointed at times. And I was utterly chagrined to find Sansom committing the capital grammatical offense of repeatedly misusing the pronoun "I" as the object of verbs and prepositions, as in "He gave the statement to Nicholas and I." Really, C.J.? How standards have fallen! Mrs. Rubenstein, my high school English teacher, would be appalled and I am appalled on her behalf.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars