(Matthew Shardlake #6) by C.J. Sansom

As Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, an incendiary manuscript threatens to tear his court apart in the new installment of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series.

The book is set in the Autumn of 1546. King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. The heresy hunt is still going strong in an Kingdom that seems reluctant to decide whether it wants to isolate itself in religion matters or if it wants to return to the Vatican’s embraces.

The court is split among the traditionalists (Papists) and the pro-reform. The first have recently tried to implicate the current Queen, Henry’s sixth wife the Protestant Catherine Parr, with heresy and failing to do so they have found themselves in the King’s disfavor.

Things seem to be stable for the Queen until her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, is stolen from her chambers. The contents of this book, if brought to the Kings attention, can cast serious doubts of her loyalty and potentially destroy her house and reform supporters. She decides to turn to her faithful, hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, to contain the potentially fatal secret.

Shardlake, although reluctant to get involved once more into political struggles, decides to help the Queen by putting himself and his associates in grave danger.He must uncover the manuscript while dealing with the traditionalist, heretics (Anabaptists) and reformists.

This is the 6th Shardlake novel (my personal favorite series of books) and one of the strongest in terms of plot and suspense! The heresy hunt has created an atmosphere where everyone lives in utter fear of doing something that will be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as blasphemy or heresy. The penalty in such case in the burning at stake! The book starts with Matthew having to witness such an «event» on behalf of his guild. The details are rather gruesome.

His well established character and that of his associates and enemies make this book a thrilling read. Sansom has the magic touch. His portrayal of an era so long gone is so detailed an vivid that it feels very authentic. For such a large book the chapters get galloped with ease. The hero, who spends his days with the burden of his deformity and has been forced in a life of solace and sadness, is one of the most human and flawed characters I have read. Although he is well established in his profession and has some stature, due to his familiarity with the Queen, he has to suffer constant belittlements from the various officers, dukes, political players and even the court jesters.

The environment in the royal court is one that would strike fear on anyone who has even the common sense. Simply to be seen by the King out of place is equivalent to a possible visit to the Tower of London. The various sympathizers are clattering the halls, like beggars, seeking desperately the patronage of someone important.! Everyone is spying on everyone and even the simplest comment can be responsible for potential misery.