Wednesday, March 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom

I’ve started a few series in the past several months. Some of these were published a while ago so there are a fair number of books already out and I have a lot of catching up to do. Over the weekend, I read the second book in C.J. Sansom’s historical mystery series starring Matthew Shardlake: Dark Fire.

I was very impressed by the first novel, Dissolution, and enjoyed Dark Fire just as much. In it, we return to Tudor England with Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer whose sharp mind has made him one of Thomas Cromwell’s more useful aides. Shardlake was once an ardent reformer, but his faith has been shaken by the misery unleashed by the dissolution of the monasteries and the persecution of religious dissenters.

This novel opens in 1540, three years after the assignment given to Shardlake by Cromwell in Dissolution. Since then, Shardlake has concentrated on the law and on staying out of Cromwell’s way. He no longer wants anything to do with the man who was once the most powerful person in England after the king. Cromwell has been falling from favor ever since finding Anne of Cleves for the king to wed. Vultures are circling. Matthew fears Cromwell, but even more, he fears what will happen to Cromwell’s adherents if Cromwell falls.

He has a couple of cases ongoing. One is against a fellow lawyer whose corruption has grown so great that Matthew is willing to break an unwritten rule that says lawyers don’t expose their fellows. A second case is even more difficult. A young woman, niece of an old friend of Matthew’s, has been charged with murdering her cousin by pushing him into a well. The uncle (who is not the boy’s father) cannot believe the girl did it. The most perplexing problem is that the girl, taken into custody and thrown in jail, refuses to speak. That stance will end with her being tortured to death. Matthew also believes her innocent, but has very little time to prove it.

These things pale in comparison to what comes next. Cromwell, who is growing desperate to remain in the king’s good graces, has learned about a secret weapon discovered in one of the monasteries that is being dismantled. The weapon is Greek Fire, or Dark Fire, an old Byzantine incendiary device, the secret of which is long lost. This fire can burn complete ships within moments. It can burn in water. King Henry, who has been collecting powerful enemies such as France and Spain, would love to have this weapon. The men who discovered it have been able to duplicate the formula and demonstrate its power to Cromwell, and they are willing to hand it over for a fee. Cromwell has promised it to Henry, but the men who have it are too slow to complete the deal, and Cromwell fears some sort of double-cross. He sends Matthew to get it, providing him with some muscle for back-up, a coarse young ruffian named Barak. When Matthew and Barak reach the home of the men with the formula, they find them murdered.

The race is on. Matthew must find the murderers, the formula, and the person high up in the government who hired the murderers. He must also save the young girl from execution by solving the mystery of who really killed the boy. And he has to adapt to this new assistant, Barak, who is ill-bred and yet, oddly companionable. Matthew must also struggle with his conscience–does he really want to be responsible for loosing this weapon upon the world?

Like Dissolution, Dark Fire is a grim book, showing the cruelty and grit of Tudor England. It’s densely written, with numerous subplots that intersect over and over, so that you have to pay attention or risk missing something important. The period detail is exquisite. The characters are richly developed. It’s a marvelous book. You don’t absolutely have to read Dissolution first, though I’d recommend doing so. This is a series, and an author, that I’ll be sticking with for a long time.