Category Archives: Review

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (The Last Policeman 3)

Publisher: Quirk Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

World of Trouble by Ben H. WintersReview
World of Trouble completes Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy – this is not a book to read without having devoured The Last Policeman and Countdown City first. Also do beware that the review below may contain information about the other two books that you might prefer not to know if you haven’t read them yet. So warnings done…

Henry (Hank) Palace will always be a detective. It’s in his blood, it fuels his days, and not even the end of days can stop him. Maia, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is now just two weeks away. With only days to live, Hank is driven to solve his last mystery and it’s a personal one, too. His younger sister Nico is on the run, caught up with a group that believes the predictions of Earth’s destruction are a conspiracy and they are set to do something about it. Hank knows first-hand that they have considerable resources as well as numbers but his hunt is not inspired by any sense of hope, he simply wants to see his sister again, the only member of his family he has left, and to know she is as safe as one can be. And so Hank, a much loved man, leaves his friends behind and sets out on his bicycle with his dog Houdini and the really rather unpleasant albeit resourceful Cortez to follow the clues to Nico.

The journey takes them across a desolate America, one divided into damaged towns that Hank grades by colour depending on their hostility to strangers, from red (the most violent) to green (inhabited by people in denial). Society and government have now broken down altogether. Nowhere is safe. There is little food and water and no power or fuel. Lawlessness and fear are in control now. But Hank Palace is an extraordinary individual. He is a kind, honourable man, ever true to the values that inspired him to be a policeman. We see the shattered world through Hank’s eyes and as a result we find goodness, friendship and even hope, no matter what he sees and experiences. And he sees and experiences some terrible things.

What Hank and Cortex discover in an Ohio police station reveals another mystery that Hank will stop at nothing, bar the end of days itself, to solve. Little reveals Hank’s progress over the last three novels more than his determination and obsession to solve this final terrible case before time runs out. In The Last Policeman Hank investigated the murder of a stranger, revealing the initial stages of social collapse with the asteroid hit still six months off; in Countdown City Hank sets out to find the missing husband of the woman who helped raise himself and his sister during an especially bleak time. That case, set a couple of months before impact, introduced us to Nico’s conspiracy theories and the way in which people, and the government, were dealing with what lay in store. In this final novel, everything is more desperate, rushed, tense and so brutal and yet amongst it all Hank can still find strangers to look after. By now, the reader wants nothing more than to look after Hank.

Hank Palace is a wonderful creation and I’ve grown to care for him deeply over the three books. He has his foibles and eccentricities but he is all the more real for it. The way that he cares for his dog Houdini is loving but it isn’t sentimental. Hank meets people in this novel who treat him with the utmost hostility but he never lets it overcome him. He’s impossible to dislike. By contrast, there are others here who are despicable, monsters made not just by the circumstances of the asteroid. You need someone like Hank up against forces like this. The enemy isn’t the asteroid.

The novels are narrated by Hank in the first person present tense. I’m not usually a big fan of this style but it works here so well. It’s as if no-one, not even the author himself, knows what will happen as the asteroid comes closer and closer. Despite the tragedy, the violence and the distress, World of Trouble is not a depressing book to read. There is a humour to it and a lightness, largely thanks to the character of Hank but also thanks to the elegance and beauty of Ben H. Winters’ writing. None of the novels is long – not much more than 300 pages apiece – and the narrative gains enormously from Winters’ terrific focus. He has also combined apocalyptic science fiction with police procedural and crime fiction superbly. Without doubt, this is one of the finest trilogies I have ever read.

Throughout, the question has been how will Ben H. Winters close this trilogy. The answer to that, I am so pleased but not surprised to say, is that he closes it perfectly.

Other reviews
The Last Policeman
Countdown City

The Terror: a short story by Giles Kristian

Year: 2014
Buy: Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The Terror by Giles KristianReview
It is AD 758 and the great hall of Harald, Viking jarl, is alive with memories retold of past adventures and deeds. Harald himself takes on the role of skald, his warriors gathering around his high seat, leaning back into their cloaks, comforted by the fire, warmed by the mead, while Grimhild, Harald’s beautiful wife, nurses their newest born, Sigurd. Jarl or not, Harald is a brave man because the subject of his story is another lord, none other than Grimhild’s father. As she watches on, fiercely but with a spark dancing in her eye, Harald tells his tale of daring and danger to his men and their wives, inspiring the young and the untested to seek out their own glory, but never would there be such a prize again as the prize that Harald and his friends fought for all those years ago.

What follows is a thoroughly entertaining, colourful tale of a group of young Vikings competing to out do one another on a reckless, foolhardy quest. While it initially reminds us of the high spirits of youth, timeless in any age, the mood soon turns – these are Vikings, after all – and violence and gore and mayhem will have their way. But this is also a memory, the jarl’s no less, retold time and time again no doubt, and so it captures and enhances every moment. The fact that the warriors of the story are naked and hairy for much of the tale does much to add to the enthusiasm of the narrator and his listeners. As for the nature of the Terror – Harald lets the tension build.

The Terror is a perfectly formed short story by one of the finest writers of historical fiction about today, Giles Kristian. One of the reasons why The Terror works so well, quite apart from the deeply evocative and powerful language, is because it is Harald’s own short story, told to us in his distinctive voice, in a spirit of warmth and camaraderie, bringing the reader into his inner circle, placing him or her by the fire and filling their head with a colourful, raucous memory from Harald’s glorious youth.

For those who enjoyed God of Vengeance this year, The Terror is also a wonderful opportunity to learn a little more about the parents and home of Sigurd, the Viking hero of God of Vengeance, before the tumultuous events that open that novel. If you’ve not read God of Vengeance, or the fabulous Raven trilogy, then The Terror is the perfect introduction to Giles Kristian’s remarkable skill as a creator of lost Viking worlds. Violent, warm, humorous and cruel, this story encapsulates so much of the appeal of Giles Kristian’s writing while adding even more to the background and mood of God of Vengeance. I was fond of Sigurd before but now I’ve had this glimpse of what he was fighting for and why I love him even more.

The short story, which you can enjoy in under an hour, is accompanied by the opening of God of Vengeance.

Other reviews
The Raven trilogy – Blood Eye, Sons of Thunder, Odin’s Wolves
God of Vengeance

Civil War novels
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 585
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy and gift (thank you Ellie @ Curiosity Killed the Bookworm!)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel FaberReview
Pastor Peter Leigh has been selected to visit Oasis, a planet trillions of miles from Earth that is home to an alien species that hungers for the word of God and especially the love of Jesus. This is a fantastic opportunity for Peter, to become a missionary on a new frontier. But the cost is high. USIC, the mysterious company that has bought Cape Canaveral and finances space exploration to Oasis, has a stringent selection policy and there is a place for just Peter, not for his beloved wife Bea. Peter must cope with life on a new, very different world, with little more than his own faith to sustain him, learning to relate to his strange unearthly flock, while separated from his wife and soulmate. Left on Earth, Bea has more than enough trials to test her own faith. Earth is in decline, catastrophes increase. Bea’s letters grow more and more desolate. The separation between husband and wife becomes much more than physical as both Peter and Bea learn about the true nature of faith, communication, love and need.

The Book of Strange New Things may well be the novel that I’ve thought about most this year before I actually got round to reading it. Friends whose opinions I value didn’t like it at all while there were others who adored it. A marmite book by the sound of things. I had some concerns going in – I have a low tolerance for anything that feels ‘preachy’ or religious and I don’t get on too well with books about marriage break-ups. But there was a stronger voice in my head saying I must read it – the cover is stunning, my favourite of the year, tactile and gorgeous, and it’s about life on a colony on an alien world while the Earth that’s been left behind approaches its apocalypse. As far as I was concerned, this is irresistible. What I actually got from The Book of Strange New Things is much more than that. This book made me dream of it.

Oasis is a breathtaking planet, not necessarily because it’s beautiful (although I think it is) but because of the way that Michel Faber describes it. Rarely has an author transported me to another world that is as fully realised as this one or populated by an alien species as sympathetic as this one. The descriptions of the rain, the mud, the insects, the sun and light and darkness, the Jesus Loving aliens, their homes and church – it is all created with such care and wonder. Earth is, as Peter reflects, more stunning with so much more to marvel at but Oasis is gorgeously different. It is alien and the wonder of that is evoked superbly through the beauty of Michel Faber’s prose.

After the opening powerful scene in which Peter and Bea part, the remainder of the novel largely moves between two worlds – Peter’s time as Pastor in the alien town, C2 or Freakland as the other colonists unkindly think of it, and his days in the human habitat surrounded by such a mix of souls. In C2 Peter experiences the everyday life of the aliens, their desire for medicines which they swap with the humans for food, their slow-motion labour, their relationship to others, their apparent androgyny and, as far as one sector of their community goes at least, their deep love and trust in Jesus. These are a ‘people’ who, after their first pastor disappeared, refused to barter food with humans until a new one is fetched from Earth for them, and that is despite their strong desire for medicines. Peter is transformed during these long days and nights in the town. He tries to adapt the word of God to make it easier for these beings who cannot pronounce many of the letters in the Bible. Peter is inspired and driven. In turn, he is loved.

The world of the human colony on Oasis is a different place entirely. Peter is drawn especially to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, but she is damaged and so, Peter learns, are many of these people who have chosen to live their lives trillions of miles from home and family.

Scattered throughout is an exchange of ‘letters’ between Bea and Peter. Having grown close by experiencing everything together, they must now build another kind of relationship defined by distance and it is difficult for them both. The glimpses we see of Earth’s environmental and social collapse thanks to Bea’s letters are absolutely fascinating, the trivial mixing with the monumental, and we can feel the push and pull of this on Peter.

This is not a straightforward narrative. We experience almost everything through Peter and his isn’t a skin that is always pleasant to inhabit. He describes everyone first by the colour of their skin, he makes easy judgements, he is obsessed with bodily functions and he has a battle to overcome his other needs. But as we learn more about his past and as he changes through contact with the aliens, it becomes easier for him and us to overcome his prejudices. Bea, by contrast, was for me an enormously sympathetic character. I felt for her so strongly. I also loved the aliens – they are so different from us but Michel Faber made me care for them very deeply.

The religious debate, the discussions about family, memories and home, are powerfully done. I didn’t expect to be moved by it but I was. Here we have people laid bare while the disasters that befall Earth are Biblical indeed. The aliens’ relationship with their faith and beliefs is developed, and later explained, extremely well and in a most memorable manner.

There is plenty here that doesn’t make sense. This is a very near-future world so how did humanity reach Oasis (and long enough ago to have built such a colony)? How do the aliens speak such good English? Why is there no time lag in communications between Peter and Bea? And I could list more. But this is science fiction without the science, a book about religion that isn’t itself religious. This is a book about one man’s experience, warts and all. I may have worried that I wouldn’t like this novel but I loved it from the very first chapter. Compelling, hypnotic, really rather extraordinary and, for me, unputdownable. The Book of Strange New Things is a highlight of the year for me and will stay with me for a long time.

In the acknowledgements, Faber mentions that all of the surnames in the book are based on those of the people who created the Marvel Comics that inspired him so deeply during the 1960s and 70s. Love that!

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (The Last Policeman 2)

Publisher: Quirk Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2013
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Countdown City by Ben H. WintersReview
This is the second novel in The Last Policeman trilogy. While it could be read as a standalone, I wouldn’t recommend it. This is a trilogy to savour. The review of The Last Policeman is here.

With just 77 days until Maia, an asteroid hell bent on destroying life of Earth, hits, Detective Henry (Hank) Palace is out of a job. Police stations are closed, as are most businesses, and only the most persistent of optimists can bother to bring some normality to everyday life, through running cafes with little food or opening shops with little stock. Suicides are commonplace, many other people have vanished to chase their Bucket List dreams. Electricity is only a memory as are phones, money, fuel. Hank Palace relies on his ten-speed bicycle to get around New Hampshire, his dog Houdini towed along in a little wagon. Hank might not have official cases to crack but, ever the detective, Hank cannot stop identifying puzzles, chasing leads, writing down all the evidence, helping people. Right now he works to help the children orphaned or abandoned on the streets of Concord, finding their lost items, giving them a little bit of security, some adult protection.

One day, Martha Cavatone, the woman who helped to look after Hank and Nico during a most desperate time in their own childhood, asks Hank for help. Her husband has disappeared. Everyone else thinks, and the clues certainly support this, that Martha’s husband is one of the many Bucket Listers, but Hank agrees that he would never have left Martha to die alone without good reason. Wanting to help but also satisfying his own deeply ingrained need to keep being a detective, Hank calls on his sister Nico to help him help Martha. Nico, though, is wayward, defiant and brave, believing that America and the world are victim to a great conspiracy. She knows people that can assist Hank in his quest and so she takes him into another world, one in which the word ‘hope’ might just survive in its vocabulary.

Countdown City is the second novel in Ben H. Winter’s fine Last Policeman trilogy. Combining apocalyptic thrills with police procedural and crime fiction, this series is utterly compelling. Its portrait of American society in its terrified death throes is as disturbing as it is vivid. In this middle novel, the chaos of complete anarchy is close – the only factor keeping it away is that water still flows through the taps. But you just know that it can only be days or just hours until that last symbol of civilisation is wrenched away. Hank and Nico Palace move through this landscape and it is testament to Winters’ superb skills as a writer that he makes the story of these two human beings as fascinating and absorbing as the larger story of the asteroid.

Hank and Nico’s journey allows Winters to explore the different effects that this disaster has had on society. Most memorable is their visit to what was once a University campus but is now the home to revolution. Youngsters have taken over the place, creating their own laws and lawlessness, failing to see that the collapse of society is simply the prelude to the collapse of life. And that is one of the most extraordinary aspects of this novel and to this series – the end of the world is just a countdown away but there is still hope and there is still humour and life and love. Hank and Nico have had their troubles over the years but this is a chance for them to pull together, helping someone who was there to support them years before. Then there’s Houdini the dog. His unquestioning trust and devotion is such a highlight and adds something more to Hank’s character. Hank has his obsessions and foibles but he (and Nico) is impossible not to like and in this book we care for him more than ever.

Running through it all is the drama of the crime solving, just as it did in The Last Policeman. The mystery is a good one, full of twists and surprises and not at all what I was expecting. As before, I didn’t guess where the novel was leading.

Countdown City, just like its predecessor (and its successor), is a relatively brief novel that is so hard to put down. I read all three books back to back, driven by the series’ captivating mix of disaster and humanity and how one intriguing young man is able to cope with both.

A review of the conclusion World of Trouble will follow very soon.

Other review
The Last Policeman

TimeRiders 9: The Infinity Cage by Alex Scarrow

Publisher: Puffin
Pages: 402
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

TimeRiders: The Infinity Cage by Alex ScarrowReview
This is a little bit of a review with a difference. The Infinity Cage is the ninth and final book in the extraordinary TimeRiders series. Ostensibly aimed at youngsters, I don’t think Alex Scarrow could have targeted TimeRiders more directly at me if he’d tried. Over the last few years I have jumped on each of these books as they’ve been released and now, knowing that the series is done, it’s hard on the heart indeed. The good news, though, for others if not for me, is that now you can read books 1 to 9 in one fell swoop, no agonising tearing out of one’s hair during those irritating long months of drought. It’s all out there waiting for you and what a treat you have in store.

It hardly needs saying but you would be certifiable to read The Infinity Cage without having read the preceding eight books. Were you to do such a thing you would drown in a foggy bog of unknowingness. It also makes it a very difficult book to review. I don’t want to give anything away about what is to come nor do I want to spoil what’s gone before. But what I do want to say is that The Infinity Cage finishes the series perfectly and satisfyingly. Alex Scarrow mapped out the entire length of the series from the very beginning and it shows. Not only is the series well-structured but it also has all of its loose ends and time travel strings of conundrums, of which there were many, tied off neatly. That is no mean feat. Also, by now we are all attached to the TimeRiders themselves – finishing their story to the satisfaction of their fans cannot be easy, but Alex Scarrow knows exactly what to do. He also has the confidence to have the fates take their course with key characters – some of the main figures do die in TimeRiders. The Infinity Cage might be satisfying, exhilarating and thrilling but it is also tragic and harrowing. TimeRiders is written for youngsters but Alex Scarrow knows exactly how to address them and, as a result, this is a series for all ages.

So, because I can’t go into The Infinity Cage with any kind of detail because you need to wait till you reach it and then you can marvel over its perfectness yourself, here are a few reasons why you should read the entire TimeRiders series.

Our TimeRiders – Liam, Maddy and Sal, three teens ripped out of their own time (for instance, Liam who was serving aboard the Titanic) and given the biggest of all responsibilities. Taken out of time themselves by some sort of future mysterious agency and placed into a ‘bubble’ on the eve of 9/11 in New York City, they must identify and fix changes in time. These three teens are impossible not to care for. I have grown to love them all dearly and I doubt I’ll ever forget them. Helping them, of course, are Becks and Bob, seven foot support units with an artificial intelligence and an increasing ability to care – and joke (not hugely successfully). Later in the series, our three have other helpers who alter the lives of Liam, Maddy and Sal, including another especially irritatingly cheerful robot. Over the years we come to love even him. Maybe.

The mystery – nothing messes with time more than timeslip novels and in TimeRiders we see the full effects of that. From time ripples to full out tidal waves, Liam, Maddy and Sal have to sort it out, even if that means a jungle world ruled by intelligent lizards. The mystery comes from the future, too. What is the agency? Who is Waldstein? Who is Fowler? And why, if the agency wants them to save the future, do they keep sending forces back to kill them? And what are those beings who inhabit Chaos Space, the places in between the past, future and now? Twists and turns – they’re here in abundance.

Darkness and fear – Alex Scarrow pulls no punches. There is violence, death and grief in these pages. Not surprisingly really when you consider that it’s the fate of all humanity that’s at risk. People age before their time while others are lost in the gaps. Time travel itself is a dangerous business. Those who don’t check their destination first might end their days melded to a horse or another person or turned inside out. Disgusting, but you can’t look away. But if you want to find true horror, just beware the glimpses of the future.

History - a love of history shines through these novels. The destinations we travel to are brought to life whether the world of the dinosaurs, the court of King John, the American Civil War, ancient Rome, the Great Fire of London, Victorian London, the Mayan empire or Jerusalem at the time of Christ. And all are linked to our time through clever clues from the past, some of which cannot be deciphered for two or three books into the future, maybe more.

Adventure - whatever the horrors, however heavy the responsibility weighs on the shoulders of our young heroes, nothing’s going to get in the way of a fine adventure. And because of the vagaries of time, this means that characters can spend years as sheriff of Nottingham back in the 11th century or years as a pirate king on the 17th-century high seas. Everything about 2001 New York is wondrous to Liam, the Titanic cabin boy, although that’s nothing compared to going back to the Jurassic or battling Caligula’s armies.

Timeless – I can’t think of another series of books that I’ve enjoyed as much as TimeRiders. I’ve written about them for years. My one consolation in knowing that there will be no more is in going back and re-reading the full set from the beginning. The series will most definitely stand up to a re-reading – it is full of clues, intentionally left for readers to rediscover. TimeRiders entertains but the series also makes readers of all ages think – about the past and future – and marvel and puzzle and love. I adore Liam, Maddy, Sal, Bob and Becks. I reckon I always will.

Other reviews
TimeRiders
TimeRiders 2: Day of the Predator
TimeRiders 3: The Doomsday Code
TimeRiders 4: The Eternal War
TimeRiders 5: Gates of Rome
TimeRiders 6: City of Shadows
TimeRiders 7: The Pirate Kings
TimeRiders 8: The Mayan Prophecy

Ellie Quinn – YA SF novellas
The Legend of Ellie Quin – review and interview with Alex Scarrow

Adult thrillers
October Skies
The Candle Man

Features
Meeting the Scarrows.
My tribute to TimeRiders on My Favourite Books

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Publisher: Quirk Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2012
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The Last Policeman by Ben H. WintersReview
When asteroid 2011GV1 (Maia) first appeared in the sky, it sparked a worldwide enthusiasm in astronomy. It would be, astronomers predicted, a spectacular near miss. But, as the days passed and the calculations were repeated and repeated, the optimism vanished. This would not be a near miss – it would be a dead hit. In just six months. What is one to do? What would you do?

Hank Palace is a young detective, newly promoted, in Concord, New Hampshire. He is honest, immensely likeable and obsessive – he shelves misplaced books in libraries, he writes down every fact in one of his father’s old notebooks, he will not led a lead drop, hanging on to it for all its worth and pursuing it to its end, no matter the cost. When the body of Peter Zell is found in the bathroom of a McDonalds, hanged, there is nothing to challenge the assumption that he is one of the many suicides you’d expect when an asteroid is about to hit. But Hank notices something odd about the body and, despite the good natured, even affectionate teasing of his colleagues, Hank will not let it go.

What follows is an intriguing and absorbing murder mystery, a whodunnit that twists and turns, pursued by the determined and earnest Hank Palace. But the mystery is just one half of The Last Policeman. There is a reason for the title. With the end of the world only six months away everyone has to ask him or herself what they want to do with their last weeks. Many cannot face it and kill themselves, some drink or drug themselves into a peaceful state of denial, some turn to spirituality or hedonism or violence, others set off in pursuit of their Bucket List, abandoning families and homes to chase after a last dream. A few can only do what they are meant to do. There is very little higher on Hank Palace’s Bucket List than fulfilling his role of being the best detective he can be, of finding justice for Peter Zell and others like him. Almost inevitably, Hank draws people to him and almost despite themselves quite a few stop to help him.

The other half of the novel is the depiction of a society beginning to lose itself in the horror and fear of what is to come. With six months to go and with the dreadful news relatively recent the world, or at least this piece of it in New Hampshire, is just about hanging on to a degree of normalcy. Many people are still working, children are still at school, there is still water, electricity, money, phonelines and internet. But it is getting harder. Phones often don’t work, fuel is about gone, business are closing, a restaurant meal costs thousands of dollars. For the moment there is still a police force but now it is regulated by a whole new set of laws. The smallest offence now will land the culprit (guilty or not) in a cell for the duration. That is a fierce deterrent – for the time being.

The Last Policeman is a terrific novel. It’s short, punchy, exhilarating and utterly addictive. Written in the first person and present tense, we see it all through Hank Palace’s eyes and experiences. I’m not a huge fan of first person present tense but if the style was made for any novel it’s this one. Hank is a marvellous companion – he is compassionate, warm, self-deprecating, persistent and active. The world might be about to end but this is by no means a depressing story. Ben H. Winters fills the pages with the humanity, often humorous, of every day interactions between Hank and his colleagues, family and friends. Hank’s batty younger sister Niko is flakey but also entertaining, introducing a touch of conspiracy theory. It’s hard not to care about her, especially as Winters deftly builds into our understanding the back story that has helped define Hank and Nico’s lives. There is a touch of tragedy throughout, not just because of the asteroid, but also because of the relationships and feelings that Hank must deal with. I was with him every step of the way.

The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy – while one element is solved, the whodunnit, the other element, the asteroid impact, can only intensify as the days pass and I cannot wait to see how. There is so much going on, so many big themes and important questions, all feeling especially powerful because the whole scenario is dealt with so realistically. This is a very real dystopia, made even more so by the gradual pace at which it grips hold. I was captivated by the end of world scenario and enchanted by the character of Hank Palace. There was only one thing I could do after reading this and that was turn to book two, Countdown City, immediately. I am now about to read the final book. Fabulous!

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

Publisher: Mantle
Pages: 642
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Lamentation by C.J. SansomReview
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and sergeant, might be forgiven for thinking he has been permitted, finally, the gift of a peaceful retirement from the intrigues of court, allowed instead to nurture his legal practice, to care for his dependents. But all such hopes die in flames, alongside the tortured body of Anne Askew, whose terrible death Shardlake is forced to witness as some sort of punishment. While some may debate secretly whether Anne died a heretic or martyr, others have even more dangerous thoughts. The court is once more divided between reformers and traditionalists, the troubled mind of the diseased, obese, dying King Henry VIII wavering between the two. The traditionalists are determined to find a link between Anne Askew and other deniers of transubstantiation and Henry’s reformer Queen, Catherine Parr. Henry loves his nurse Queen but she may be about to prove herself her own worst enemy. Catherine’s uncle and adviser Lord William Parr calls on Shardlake to once more put himself at the service of Catherine, a woman he holds truly dear even though such service has already almost cost him his life.

A printer has been found dead, murdered, in the printing shops of St Paul’s. In his hand lay a fragment of the front page of a manuscript that could cause mortal danger to the Queen. The fragment comes from the frontispiece of a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, written by Catherine and stolen from her bedchamber. This is an age of forbidden books, when any sentence can be open to innocent or willful misinterpretation. The Tower grows full and heretics burn. In great fear for her life, Catherine persuades Matthew to investigate the printer’s murder and to find and restore the Lamentation to her before Henry discovers its existence and her husband becomes her executioner, just as he became to the wife who preceded her.

C.J. Sansom has achieved a remarkable feat with Lamentation. He brings to life, with all its colours, stench and desperation, a period of history that to me at least had become overly familiar. During his last months, Henry VIII placed the necks of many of his courtiers on a knife’s edge, while the streets of London and towns further afield stank with the burned remains of his victims and those of his fanatical advisers. No-one could have felt the fear more than Henry’s sixth wife and it is that appalling dread that Sansom captures perfectly, not just as it affects Catherine but also as it marked the days and nights of everyone around her, including Matthew. In these dangerous times, you don’t need a stolen manuscript to incriminate you, just a word in the right ear is enough, and Shardlake has to deal with the threat of that in his current legal case which involves the dispute between a brother and sister over the ownership of a painting. It sounds innocuous but it is far from trivial. This troubling case complements Shardlake’s work for the Queen so well – the religious storm reaches every room of the house.

It’s been a considerable time since I read a Matthew Shardlake novel. Lamentation is the sixth in the series but the gap between the books is rarely a short one. I also hadn’t read the previous novel, Heartstone, having stalled over Revelation. I was in two minds whether to return to the series but I read the opening chapter in the bookshop and it was magnificent. I was captivated, bought the book and read it straight away, barely drawing breath. Lamentation is the best of the series that I’ve read but it is also one of the finest Tudor novels that I’ve ever read, and I’m including the Hilary Mantel novels in that.

Time has moved on for Shardlake. He has been damaged by the events of Heartstone. We are repeatedly reminded of the trauma that he suffered aboard the Mary Rose, so much so that I will now make sure I read that novel soon. There’s no Guy in this novel and Jack Barak, Shardlake’s longterm assistant and heavy hand, is now married with children. Nicholas, a young apprentice, is Shardlake’s new assistant and watching the trust grow between master and pupil is such a highlight of Lamentation. Barak certainly has his role in the story, though, and it is one that the reader won’t forget in a hurry.

Tudor London is vividly brought to life and so, too, is the court. We have glimpses of Henry that are all the more revealing because they are stolen and fleeting. We also encounter Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth and those who earn their living fawning over the princesses and Queen, whether as guards, ladies in waiting, anyone with a petition, fools, craftsmen, lawyers, churchmen, or distant hungry relatives. Shardlake’s position is never less than precarious but all the way through we hear of events through his calm, sensitive and wise first person narration. We hear his frustrations and worries, listen to the abuse that he suffers, the insults that he endures, and the thoughts that he keeps close about Catherine Parr, the woman who may not always be his Queen.

Lamentation is a wonderful novel – luxurious, rich and stately. Every page of this long and hugely rewarding book transports us to another time that has the power to both dazzle and terrify. A reading highlight of the year for sure.

Other review
Dominion