Mantle | 2018 (18 October) | 850p | Review copies | Buy the book
Tombland is the seventh novel in this fine series to feature Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Although there are a few references to previous events, Tombland stands well on its own as our journey through the Tudor period continues. Many of you, though, will have been looking forward to this just as much as me. It’s time once more to immerse ourselves in Tudor England.
It is 1549, a few years have passed since the events of Lamentation. Henry VIII is dead, as is, sadly, his Dowager Queen, Matthew Shardlake’s patron Catherine Parr. Edward VI, the boy king, sits on the throne but power is held in the hands of his Protector, Lord Somerset. Times are difficult. Somerset pursues his costly war with Scotland while religious intolerance upsets the common people, although not as much as their lords illegally enclosing their fields and common land in order to make a profit from sheep at their expense. The country is not content.
Matthew Shardlake has recently had a chilling reminder of why the powerful Richard Rich, now Edward VI’s Lord Chancellor, is his enemy. He needs to escape the court. It’s good timing, then, when he is called to the household of the King’s sister Lady Elizabeth in Hatfield to investigate a murder. Edith Boleyn, the wife of John, a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s, has been found murdered in the most grotesque manner in a small town in Norfolk. John stands accused of her murder and is expected to hang. Elizabeth would be most displeased if that were to happen. And so Matthew Shardlake and his assistant young Nicholas Overton travel to Norwich in Norfolk for a summer that will change them all forever.
Tombland is one of my most anticipated novels of the year (in fact, I was so excited I had a nose bleed… the power of books) and so I began it the day it unexpectedly and wonderfully arrived. It’s not a small book. On the contrary, it’s a mighty tome of 850 pages, and, as expected, every page is a pleasure as it brings us as close to Tudor Norfolk as I think any work of fiction possibly could. It’s quite extraordinary, really. As I was reading it – for instance, during the chapter when Matthew first rides through the gates of Norwich and up to its castle and cathedral – I could imagine it all so clearly. This is some of the most visual descriptive prose I’ve read. It’s packed with historical detail but it’s used to build a picture of the streets, buildings and people of the time. I took my time to imagine it all around me and I could do so incredibly clearly. How fantastic!
One would have thought that the Tudor period has been wrung dry by novelists but C.J. Sansom always reveals its lesser known aspects and this time he takes us to 1649 and the great rebellions of the people. Edward VI’s reign is largely unmined territory and it’s fascinating to learn what went on, in Norfolk and also elsewhere in England. I did some research while reading this and was so interested to learn how close these rebellions came to my home town of Oxford. Here, though, the emphasis is on Norfolk and perhaps the most significant of the rebellions, that led by Robert Kett. I gobbled this up. It’s so compelling.
There is no black and white here. Matthew is a man caught up in a situation that is out of his control and it’s so interesting watching him adapt to it, try to cope with it, try and survive it. I was really glad to see the involvement of Matthew’s former assistant, Jack Barak, and Jack and Nicholas must also respond to their situation in their own ways. C.J. Sansom carefully reveals the causes of the rebellions. There’s nothing dry here. It’s thoroughly engaging and absorbing as we see the impact of enclosures on ordinary men and women. We meet many of them – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the unlucky. There are triumphs and tragedies. I shed tears more than once while at other times I was exhilarated. The positions of the King’s two sisters Mary and Elizabeth, rivals and yet both in a similar situation, is also such an intriguing element of a book full of intriguing elements.
Lamentation was my favourite of the series but it’s now been replaced by Tombland. This is a book that hugely rewards the reader and shows just how much of Tudor England there is left to explore. And it’s very possible that nobody else can bring it as much to life as C.J. Sansom. There’s usually a wait between books but they’re always so worth it.