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.