Lamentation, by C. J. Sansom

If you have never before encountered Matthew Shardlake, the unlikely protagonist of C.J. Sansom’s excellent mystery series set in the second half of the reign of Henry VIII, you are in for a treat. But, do NOT begin with Lamentation, the sixth book in this acclaimed series! Instead, read the earlier novels, in order. First, Dissolution; then, on to Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, Heartstone, and then – and only then – Lamentation.

If you are already a fan of C. J. Sansom’s novels, you have been eagerly awaiting Lamentation, and looking forward to, once again, diving into Tudor London and the world of Matthew Shardlake. So set aside a bloc of time (a significant one! The book is a wonderful and weighty 600+ pages) and prepare to be transported.

There is, in Lamentation, murder, mayhem, intrigue, corruption and political plotting – in abundance. But there are also deeper themes, as we have come to expect from Sansom. Questions of loyalty, integrity, the evolution of personal faith, and the intersection of religion and an ordered society are all explored through the complex motivations of a varied cast of characters.

The hero, Matthew Shardlake, is a London lawyer, intelligent and sensitive. By now, he has seen so much that his world-weariness narrowly avoids cynicism, but he has retained the essential humanity, and the remains of the unquenchable idealism that have endeared him to so many readers. We also meet several other men and women who were introduced in previous books. Whether friend, or enemy, all of their characterizations have only deepened and improved as the series has progressed.

Lamentation teems with memorable and sharply defined secondary figures ranging from the middling classes to the highest in the realm. Apart from a heart-breakingly naive and visionary Anne Askew, the middle classes are pure fiction.

Once at Henry’s court, however, there are plenty of names that Tudor enthusiasts will recognize: Lord William Parr, Thomas Cranmer, Sir Richard Rich (boo!), Sir William Paget, Jane the Fool, and a young up-and-coming courtier by the name of William Cecil. Their paths are twisting; their motivations seldom simple, or pure. The most admirable is the sweet-natured and earnest Queen Katherine Parr, whose gallant spirit infuses the book. And over all, ever-present, looms the ominous and terrifying shadow of the decaying Henry VIII.

The first view we get of Henry demonstrates the expressiveness of Sansom’s descriptions. When Shardlake looks out from a window of the palace to a small, private courtyard, he sees…

“Two of the sturdy, black-robed Gentlemen Pensioners were helping an immense figure, clad in a billowing yellow silk caftan with a collar of light fur to walk along, supporting him under the arms. I saw with a shock that it was the King. I had seen him close to twice before – during his Great Progress to York in 1541, when he had been a magnificent-looking figure; and again on his entry to Portsmouth last year. I had been shocked then at his deterioration; he had become hugely fat, and had looked worn with pain. But the man I saw now was the very wreck of a human being. His huge legs, made larger still by swathes of bandages, were splayed out like a gigantic child’s as he took each slow and painful step.”

The descriptions of Shardlake’s physical surroundings, whether a ramshackle printer’s shack or the wide stairways and painted rooms of Whitehall Palace, are equally vivid and compelling. The reader is totally submerged in the world of Lamentation. Never once, as long as it is, did I want the book to end!

Lamentation has some major plot twists. While not revealing any “spoilers,” the book does bring Shardlake and the series to closure, of sorts, while leaving the way open for both to continue in a new era. That new era is certain to be just as intriguing as the past.