Saturday, 15 February 2014

Book review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

I was thinking this morning that I've never actually bought a C.J. Sansom book myself. All five of them were gifts: the first from a friend, the other four from Maxx. Since then, I've decided I'm not going to choose books for myself anymore - letting other (trusted!) people recommend them means I've been introduced to more authors and genres. 

For Valentine's Day, Maxx bought me three more books: one by the well-known author and historian Alison Weir, whose books I am already a fan of, and the other two by authors I've never heard of but are apparently very successful. I started Kate Morton's The House at Riverton last night, and now can't wait to start commuting to London again so I can read it on the train.

Anyway, as promised, here is the second installment of my C.J. Sansom reviews...

Dark Fire

Appropriately, Dark Fire is set during the hottest summer of the sixteenth century, in 1540. After Shardlake's dangerous adventures in Scarnsea, he is now trying to lie low in the bustling city of London, convinced he is not in favour with Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is increasingly unstable himself, as he tries to save the King's fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves.

There are two competing investigations in this fast-paced, brutal second novel, both of which need to be solved in 12 action-packed days. An official of the Court of Augmentations has discovered the formula for Greek Fire, a petrol-based weapon which the Byzantines used to defeat the Arab navies with, in a dissolved London monastery. When Shardlake is sent to recover it, he finds the official and his alchemist brother horrifically murdered and the formula missing. 

At the same time, Shardlake must investigate the case of Elizabeth Wentworth; accused of murdering her young cousin Ralph, she has refused to speak since, languishing in Newgate prison with less than two weeks until she is executed.

As with Dissolution, the story twists to its explosive ending; my mind was literally running to keep up. The reader is introduced to one of Shardlake's greatest enemies, Sir Richard Rich, as well as new ally and partner Jack Barak. Appointed by Cromwell, Barak adds a rougher sense of adventure to Shardlake's investigations, particularly when they break into the Wentworth's property. While Barak's coarse language grates on his superior, his interest in the welfare of the lower classes is poignant, particularly when he reveals to Shardlake that his 'incompetent' aid at the courts is actually half blind. 

Dark Fire is rich with moral dilemma, class difference and racial tension. Guy Malton, the ex-monk from Scarnsea, is now living a quiet life as an apothecary; he provides a source of moral righteousness throughout Shardlake's search for the Greek Fire formula, arguing that if he was able to make it, he would not give the formula to his friend because of the destructive purpose it would be used for. Shardlake's increasing disillusion about religious reform, and the presence of God in general, is substantiated by the reformists' increasing violence in the name of their cause.

Sansom has an excellent aptitude for writing very human, complex characters; Barak is initially suspicious and rude about Guy, even though he too is mocked for being racially different (he is of Jewish descent). Eventually, Shardlake and Barak, and Barak and Guy, become firm friends, but neither are written as inferior, even if the books are from Shardlake's perspective.

I have given Dark Fire 9/10 because, even though it was thrilling, I felt the Greek Fire investigation became too drawn out. I actually thought the story of Elizabeth Wentworth was more intriguing, but this could have been because it was not the only plot of the novel. Even so, Sansom paces this story excellently, revealing kind characters to be cruelly deceptive and hard characters to be fiercely loyal.


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