Review: Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

After my last read, which was bleak and somewhat depressing, Sovereign was just what the doctor ordered: an intelligent, historical mystery.  This is the third in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.  Shardlake, a London lawyer, receives orders from Archbishop Cranmer to travel to York with King Henry VIII’s 1541 Progress.  There, he is to watch over the health and well-being of a prisoner, who is part of a conspiracy that threatens Henry’s right to the throne.  Shardlake and his assistant Barak arrive in York ahead of the Progress; the city is alive with preparations for the big event.  When a craftsman dies a grisly death, Shardlake suspects it was no accident.  He takes it upon himself to investigate, and so the tale unfolds.

There is so much to enjoy in these books.  First, there is the historical context.  Shardlake operates on the edges of court.  Well-known figures like Cranmer and the Duke of Norfolk are seldom central to the plot but never far away.  Familiar stories unfold, but as a backdrop instead of the centerpiece — such as, in this book, the events leading to Queen Catherine’s execution.  Second, Sansom fills Shardlake’s world with several interesting characters, and convinces the reader that just about any one of them could be guilty.  Then he weaves several threads into a web of major and minor mysteries.  In Sovereign, not only is there a murder to be solved, but someone is out to get Shardlake too.

My only quibble with these books is that Sansom can run on a bit: why use one word when ten will do?  The dead body didn’t show up until page 75, and it took nearly 600 more pages to solve the crime and tie up the loose ends.  However, I was hooked on the story and found myself sneaking short bursts of reading into my day, just to see what would happen next.  I’m happy to have the next installment already on my shelves.


10 thoughts on “Review: Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

  1. They are rather long books aren’t they? : ) – I too have the next installment – on my kindle. It won’t weigh quite so much in my hands. They are fairly quick reads, though I think a little bit of shortening might be in order.

    • Ali, I hope to read the next installment later this year. I don’t think it’s quite as long as this one but I like the idea of having them on your kindle. I love using mine for “chunksters”.

  2. Good to know the series doesn’t tail off. Your comment about Sansom’s verbosity reminded me about our book club discussion on Dissolution. Many people felt his descriptive powered were a bit weak and long winded. And indeed if you look at any one passage in isolation they are not much to write home about. But the overall effect works.

    • Karen, I liked this: if you look at any one passage in isolation they are not much to write home about. But the overall effect works. I couldn’t agree more! Plus, I feel like these are such intelligent mysteries. They may be verbose, but they’re not at all fluffy.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book series — perhaps I’ll tackle one in the summer … I like the idea of downloading the “chunksters” on my Nook rather than hefting it around from place to place. Love the reviews!

  4. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the Shardlake series! I read them all in the space of three months last year as I got more than a little hooked on them. Without giving any spoilers to those who haven’t read the book I thought Sovereign was the weakest of the series in plot terms. The revelation of the killer’s motives and background stretched credulity for me, but the evocation of York and the Royal progress was magnificent. The introduction of Henry VIII was brilliantly done, and I actually found myself excited about it in the build up, such was the suspense Sansom managed to inject into the appearance of the forever central but off-stage King.

    I’ve recently finished Winter in Madrid, which was another page-turner, although the characters were not as rich as in the Shardlake novels.

    • Alex, I love your phrase, “the forever central but off-stage King”. That really captures Sansom’s talent for blending fact and fiction. I completely understand getting hooked on these, I think I would have done the same if I’d had all of the books on hand when I started.

  5. Such a satisying series! I love the way that the plots tie into real historical events without feeling too much as if they’ve been shoehorned in to fit (perhaps excluding the appearance of a certain boat in one of the other novels, which was a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun…).

    I do wish they were a little shorter (and indeed more tightly edited/less baggy) though – it would increase the amount of sleep I manage to get once I have one underway!

    • You are so right about the plots being deftly woven into history. It makes for such an intelligent series. I can’t wait to read the next one now.

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