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Revelation by C J Sansom

Updated on April 8, 2012

Revelation C. J. Sansom

Revelation – CJ Sansom

"The experience of our times shows that the princes who have done great things are the ones who have taken little account of their promises and who have known how to addle the brains of men with their craft." (Niccolò Machiavelli 1469 – 1527)

Who is the author?

C J Sansom is something of an unknown quantity, born in 1952 in Edinburgh, Scotland and following a university education he moved from job to job, unsettled.

Eventually he decided to re-train as a solicitor and thus began his love of and relationship with the law, which eventually led him to create the character in his main series of books – Matthew Shardlake.

Sansom has come into popular acclaim through his series of novels set in Tudor England, historical fact woven skilfully into the crime, thrill and intrigue of the great city of London.

This hunchbacked Tudor lawyer, the central character and quiet hero of the books written by Sansom, is first encountered the book Dissolution in 2003. My first encounter with Shardlake was in Revelation written in 2008.

He has also written a book based in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war – Winter in Madrid. His latest book, published in 2010 is entitled Heartstone and again follows the endeavours of his central character Shardlake.

What’s the story?

Henry VIII sits on the throne of England; the country is racked and torn by the dissolution and the painful birth of Reformation, he is wooing his 6th wife Catherine Parr. These are dangerous times; suspicion, betrayal and corruption are woven into the politics of the day. Not many are brave enough to stand forth and hold fast to what is good and right in this dark age in England’s history.

The book of Revelation in the Bible portrays the last days, the chaos and destruction of the end of the world. For many in Tudor England towards the end of Henry’s reign it was the end of days…. The world and religion they knew had been torn apart.

The plot begins its twists and turns with the murder of a fellow lawyer and friend; this then sets the scene for further brutal and hideous crimes. The wife of his murdered friend gets a promise from Shardlake to find the killer.

The streets putrid and thronged, beggars on corners, thieves prowling. Our lawyer quietly drawn into the plot, encountering ridicule for his hunchback, a deformity that life had given him from birth.

Shardlake has to contend with a corrupt coroner, defend his own household and as the plot unfolds he faces Archbishop Cranmer himself. The power and significance dawns when Cranmer tells him that this must not reach the ears of the King – or they could all lose their heads.

We begin to see that this is a serial killer, his gruesome murders following the book of Revelation, a grim parody of the end of man and the end of time.

In the midst of this we see a sub plot, a boy of 15 years, placed in Bedlam – the most horrific hell hole of it’s time, the mad and insane, or worse those wrongly accused of it were placed here. Accused of religious mania… he could be burned alive. He is obsessed about forgiveness for a sin he feels he has committed; Shardlake promises his parents he will investigate his plight.

Thus we follow the adventure to its conclusion, the murderer found, the bedlam boy released from his torment – and the bells ring out across the city as henry marries his sixth wife.

My experience of the book

So, we are in London in 1543, our Tudor ‘Inspector Morse’ – Shardlake - has made two promises, one to a widow, one to distraught parents.

Matthew Shardlake grows on the reader, his sense of duty, and his love of justice. The sharp trained lawyer’s mind occasionally softened by compassion - and we are led to believe the occasional promise of love, though is destiny does not always seem to lead him to the latter.

Sansom weaves the accuracy and historical settings of this nightmare time in the great city of London. I must admit that I have a fondness for any tale about London, having worked there and spent many happy times exploring as a visitor I soon became absorbed by the detailed and tightly woven descriptions of the city and its population.

One of the reviews in the front pages says ‘the book takes the reader deep into a world where torture and death are not merely endemic but fantastically envisaged at every turn…. A masterly evocation.’ (Jane Jakeman, The Independent).

A big claim, a lot to live up to in my first encounter with Sansom and Shardlake. I’ve read my way around enough historical fiction to know a good tale – and this one did indeed live up to the reviews and the expectations they brought.

One could be led into the quite modern plot line of a crazed serial killer slashing and slaughtering his way through a succession of victims until at last apprehended. However, Sansom has created enough of a tapestry to avoid this, a tapestry rich enough to hold the reader deep in its threads.

In some ways the sub plot around Bedlam and the lad imprisoned brings some light relief and balance; it is almost better in places than the main storyline.

Overall, this is a thoroughly good romp through Tudor England, its politics, religion and people. In the midst of the corruption and turmoil that Reformation brought, men like Matthew Shardlake were beacons of hope for many; Sansom draws us to the justice and hope of Shardlake; frightening and distressing us, then calming and lifting our hopes as the lawyer succeeds in his quests.

What is Revelation?

The book of Revelation is the last book of the New Testament. It is described as many things, it’s frightening word pictures tell of the end of man and the final coming of the saviour.

What is Reformation?

The Reformation, traditionally described has having been begun by Martin Luther in 1517, was the movement, which gave rise to Protestant churches and the decline of the power of Roman Catholicism. The Reformation sought to "reform" Christianity by returning it to original beliefs based solely on reference to the Bible, eliminating later additions which accumulated in tradition.


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    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks for this painstaking review. Good job. The book sounds very interesting and I love historical fiction.