Thursday 14 July 2011

Dark Fire

I feel as though I've been on a bit of an unofficial blogging break this past few weeks, and I suppose it's true. Partly it's because of some real life issues going on, but also I seem to have wanted to read without the added responsibility of blogging. I should also say that what I've been reading have been continuations of various series and I tend to think it's a bit unnecessary to blog about every book in a series. 'Spoilers' tend to be an issue for a start.

Anyway, to end my blogging silence I thought I would review Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom. It *is* part of a series (book 2) but I also feel that it's a book which easily stands alone. It's also far too good not to be blogged about!

It's the summer of 1540 and it's one of the hottest on record. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer, and a hunchback in a time when disfigurments are looked upon as something evil, God's retribution, or something similar.

After the events of Dissolution Matthew is living quietly, keeping his head down and avoiding, if possible, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's first minister, a reformer, and heavily involved in the previous story.

Matthew is approached by Joseph Wentworth to help him with a case. His neice, Elizabeth, stands accused of murdering her young cousin, Ralph, by pushing him down a well. Joseph is convinced that Elizabeth is innocent but she won't plead and could thus find herself being 'pressed' to death. In fact she won't talk at all and no one knows why. Matthew suspects some trauma within the family and is about to start investigating when he's summoned by Cromwell.

Cromwell is falling out of favour with King Henry. Henry wants to divorce Anne of Cleeves and marry Catherine Howard which would bring the Howard family to the fore, specifically The Earl of Norfolk who, people suspect, would return the country to the papists. Cromwell has heard tell of a weapon, known as Greek or 'Dark' Fire, which might, if he could find it, put him back in favour with Henry. The weapon shoots fire over a wide range and is deadly but the formula for making it has been lost. Or has it? Cromwell has been approached by two brothers who say they have some and can also make more. The First Minister instructs the extremely reluctant Shardlake to find this Greek Fire and gives him one of his assistants, Jack Barak, to help.

The two men have exactly two weeks, not only to find this weapon but also to investigate the problem of Elizabeth Wentworth. Both cases turn out to be incredibly complex and very dangerous to boot. Shardlake's inquiries into Greek Fire make him the target of two assassins who seem always to be one step ahead and are killing anyone who might be able help. Not only that, can he really trust Barak? The man is a rough diamond and ruthless as they come and Matthew has no idea whether the man is strictly on his side. But time is against him and the formula must be found or the consequences will be dire, not just for Matthew but possibly for the whole country.

This is one of those books that I didn't want to end. That's a rare thing for me to say because usually I'm quite content when a story reaches its conclusion. Dark Fire however has so much going for it, is so rich in detail and so satisfyingly complex in its plotting that I was really sad when I reached the end.

Matthew Shardlake is a brilliant main character. Being disabled he is the butt of much spite and vindictiveness but he carries on regardless. He's vastly intelligent and intuitive and most of all 'honest' in a time when that was very rare. In Tudor times the rich were rich and planned to stay that way and the poor... well they had to fend for themselves and very few of the wealthy bothered to help them. Historical detail is the backbone of this series... it's almost as if they are historicals first and crime stories second. The reader is transported back to a 16th. century which is corrupt, foul smelling, unhealthy and most of all, dangerous. It took very little to end up in Newgate prison where your fate depended on how much money your relatives were prepared to shell out to bribe the gaolers.

Dark Fire is book two in C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series. I actually think it's better than the first book, Dissolution, which at times confused me... I found it hard to tell one monk from another. This second book did not confuse me at all. The characters were clearly defined and I loved the addition of Jack Barak whom Shardlake is forced to work with despite serious misgivings. Their relationship, I felt, really added to the suspense and to the telling of what I felt was a very strong story. Truthfully, I can't praise this book highly enough. It is so *so* good - twists and turns galore, rich in historical detail, beautifully written, and good enough to keep even my husband happy. He generally avoids historical crime like the plague but makes an exception for this series. The only problem I can see is that the excellence of these books sort of ruins you for other less accomplished historical crime novels.

The next book in the series is Sovereign, set in York I believe. Needless to say, it's already on my tbr pile.


Anonymous said...

Good to see you, Cath! I'm all for slowdowns in blogging and am about to do another for me with the moving thing.

This isn't a series that I've read yet, but I think I have the first two at least packed away. I'll keep it in mind. Not necessarily a favorite time period of mine, but I'll give it a try.

Hope all is well and again, good to see you!

Cath said...

Hi Kay: Nice to see you too. :-) I had a complete blogging break last summer for a couple of months... this year I'm doing more of go-slow. LOL. Loving what I'm reading but keeping the blogging for those extra special books.

This is not a favourite time period of mine either, I'm more into Regency, Victorian and Edwardian. The Tudors throw me a bit with all the complicated intrigue involved. And yet these books are so good that I'm willing to make an exception, partly because they don't concentrate much on court intrigue but more on the crime and social conditions of the period. And Matthew himself is so brilliant, a very unusual detective.

Take care and I hope the move goes well.

DesLily said...

i've been having such a *bad reading spell* (so I think I can skip this even though its so good..for now anyway) both for my being so slow (more floaters in the other eye so it takes much longer just to read a single page..but it won't stop me!)..and for content of books.. finaly I started Folly by Laurie R King (stand alone book) and it's excellent! so am reading a bit more then usual each day !!

Cath said...

Oh God, Pat, I saw Folly in the library a couple of days ago and didn't pick it up. Am going back on Monday to see if it's still there... Are you liking it?

My Gallery of Worlds said...

Wow, this sounds like a complex story Cath, but also brilliant. So glad you enjoyed it. Great review :D

Cath said...

Kelly: Yes, the author seems to specialise in complex plots but also historical detail. I learnt a *lot* and I love it when a book educates as well as entertains.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

I have heard nothing but good things about this series of books, but I really have to be in the mood to read historical sagas, especially one of such epic proportions as this series.

I know how you feel about the whole blogging issue. I find that it can quite easily take over my life, if I let it and the spare time that I get for reading is eaten up if I am not careful, which kind of defeats the object!

Others seem to be able to turn out quality posts on a daily basis and I am fast coming to the conclusion that to try and emulate them is pretty futile, so posting as and when I want to, is a much better option.

That was a great review by the way!!


Anonymous said...

I need a good historical crime novel. I miss reading those. I've been reading so much fantasy lately, that I think -is it possible to say?- I might sicken of it?


Cath said...

Yvonne: I think this series is undoubtedly one of the best historical crime series around. But you're right that you need to be in the mood for such books. I read the first one a couple of years ago and only recently felt like picking up book two.

As to blogging I think we all have to decide what suits us. I can't do long, intelligent, analytical posts anyway, let alone attempt such a thing on a daily basis. So I agree that to attempt it is futile. It seems to me that people will either like you enough to read and comment on your posts, or they won't. (And I do think it's *that* personal.) No use in agonising over it. I have done so in the past, believe you me, and it's just made me miserable. Truthfully, I'm really too busy in the summer with grandchildren and the garden to post a lot so I'm just going to post as and when I can and try to be more relaxed about the whole thing.

Sharry: Oh yes... I certainly get tired of certain genres from time to time and need a change. I've even switched (temporarily I'm sure) from fiction to non-fiction at the moment as I want a change from fantasy... and murder. LOL.

Susan said...

I read some of your post, i have it right here waiting to be read. As you know i loved the first one, so I've been waiting until I felt ready for the second in case it disappointed! lol I've heard mixed things about the second, so I'm glad you enjoyed it that much. I've heard the fifth one out, Heartstone, is very very good, in this series.

I love the Tudor time period, so these mysteries fascinate me, even as they 'teach' me. Lovely review, Cath!!

Cath said...

Susan: Oh gosh, I actually thought book 2 in the Shardlake series was better than book 1. So much to love about Dark Fire! Actually, I even think it would be suitable for RIP. Book 3, Sovereign, might interest you too as I believe it's set in York.