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reading challenge: Heartstone

January 27, 2011

So I finished my first book for the reading challenge. CJ Sansom’s Heartstone falls into the ‘Willpower, what willpower?’ category: I simply cannot resist Sansom’s page turners.

This is the fifth of the Matthew Shardlake novels, set in the England of Henry VIII and featuring Shardlake the hunchbacked lawyer who regularly gets asked to turn detective in the wake of murderous events. I love these books for their skilful interweaving of multiple plots, the detailed and unusual historical research, and the characters, especially Shardlake, courageous defender of the marginalised and cheated.

It is probably Sansom’s deft handling of the plots that makes Heartstone so difficult to put down; nevertheless there are several places where description goes on for a couple of pages or more but the narrative does not flag. The sights and particularly the smells of Henry’s turbulent reign are evoked vividly, but what really impresses is the sheer breadth of Sansom’s research. I learnt about the history of iron foundries, the claustrophobia of life aboard the magnificent Tudor warships, the importance of archery and the evil Court of Wards, which is the source of Shardlake’s main investigation.

The Court of Wards was, as Sansom puts it in his afterword, ‘yet another scheme for extracting money from the populace devised by Henry VIII’. Set up to deal with the affairs of wealthy orphans, it was a byword for corruption. Shardlake is asked to investigate one of its cases by none other than Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr. Not that it would have taken a Royal to persuade him to fight against exploitation: defending the weak is Shardlake’s passion, perhaps because, as a hunchback, he understands what it is like to suffer prejudice and abuse at the hands of the powerful.

The terrible ways that adults can take advantage of children is a theme that runs through each of the separate plot strands in this splendid story. Shardlake fights for them at every turn, often at considerable risk to himself. This highly sympathetic central character is another reason why the book works so well. Other characters, too, are likeable and distinctive. The brash but faithful Barak is at Shardlake’s side again, this time with worries of his own about children. I was only disappointed that the gentle apothecary Guy Malton did not feature more strongly. Here’s hoping Sansom has plans for several more Shardlake stories.

Incidentally, this was also the first book I read on my Kindle, about which more later.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2011 12:59 am

    Jo – This sounds very intriguing; thanks for the introduction to Sansom.

    I am unfamiliar with this author, but I cannot tell you how much I LOVE that particular period of English history. I find it simply fascinating. (But then, you probably already know that most Americans are fascinated with the English monarchy in general!)

    I will have to look into this book. I am in a book club, and we are always searching for new selections. One question: do the books need to be read in sequence?

    • January 28, 2011 1:31 pm

      I’ll be delighted if I can get more fans for Sansom! I don’t think you *need* to read the books in order but if you are particularly interested in the period you might like to as they cover different stages of Henry’s reign in order. I think he has a different wife in each book, for example!

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