Heartstone by C J Sansom: Book Review

Mantle (Macmillan) 2010
Pages 640
ISBN 9781405092739
Dimensions 234mm x 153mm   Weight 0.95 kg

Publisher’s blurb:

Summer, 1545. England is at war. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel . . .

Meanwhile, Matthew Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr. Asked to investigate claims of ‘monstrous wrongs’ committed against his young ward, Hugh Curteys, by Sir Nicholas Hobbey, Shardlake and his assistant Barak journey to Portsmouth. There, Shardlake also intends to investigate the mysterious past of Ellen Fettiplace, a young woman incarcerated in the Bedlam.

Once in Portsmouth, Shardlake and Barak find themselves in a city preparing for war. The mysteries surrounding the Hobbey family and the events that destroyed Ellen’s family nineteen years before, involve Shardlake in reunions both with an old friend and an old enemy close to the throne. Soon events will converge on board one of the king’s great warships gathered in Portsmouth harbour, waiting to sail out and confront the approaching French fleet. . .

This is the fifth novel in the Matthew Shardlake series and to my mind although it’s good, I think it’s not quite as good as the others. Compared to the earlier books it’s a bit plodding as Shardlake goes on numerous journeys. But that aside it’s great on detail about life in Tudor times. There’s the war against the French, details about how the troops were recruited and trained, about the French attack on Portsmouth and the sinking of the Mary Rose. Actually I found that more interesting than the mystery surrounding Hugh Curteys, which I’d guessed quite early on, although it began well with Shardlake out of his usual area of expertise, going through the records at the Court of Wards.

The story about Ellen Fettiplace is more intriguing. Ellen had been an inmate in the Bedlam for 19 years and Shardlake discovered that there was no order of lunacy to authorise her imprisonment. His searches lead him to Rolfswood, the place where Ellen had lived. There he eventually discovers the terrible truth. Shardlake is dedicated to protecting the underdog, championing those unable to help themselves and above all to justice and truth, disregarding his own safety. But his dedication has become obsessive and there were times when I agreed with Barak that he should let go and return to London.

As usual, reading Sansom’s historical novels there is the echo of the past repeating itself. In this one I found myself thinking of the nature of war, the power that national leaders have in making decisions and the effects it has on ordinary people who get dragged into the battles willy-nilly. His research is excellent, his characters are well drawn and the atmosphere and sense of place are convincing. Whilst I was reading I was transported to Tudor England at a time of war.

4 thoughts on “Heartstone by C J Sansom: Book Review

  1. Margaret – Thanks for this review. You’ve hit on something that, to me, is so important in an historical novel, whether it’s crime fiction or not: accuracy. I like historical fiction to, as you put it, transport me to the time and place the author is depicting. I’m quite a fan of authors who do their research when they write, so that the details of a story support the plot and add to the atmosphere.


  2. I love reading novels about this period in British history. There is always so much intrigue and danger because of Henry VIII, women, religion, and wars. This series sounds interesting, a different way of learning about England in those days.


  3. I agree about it being good but not as good as the others. I also agree that it’s main stength lies in its evocation of the era: so many details of sights, sounds and smells are meticulously described. Perhaps the plodding journeys where a means of reminding us just how long it took to get between London and the south coast in those days? Although it could well be that some commuters reading this on the train fail to notice much improvement!

    I also had some reservations about how at least one real historical figure was used. Since my comments on that issue might be considered a spoiler, I would refer you here should you wish to read my thoughts on this: http://www.librarything.com/profile_reviews.php?view=dsc73277


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