Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book review: Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Firstly, let me explain how no amount of adjectives can truly describe how gripping these books are - I would exhaust my Oxford Thesaurus (that sounds like a breed of dinosaur... I digress). In addition, they are factually accurate, believable and well-written, with a brief author's note at the back describing where authorial liberties were taken and why. The Matthew Shardlake series is my favourite book series ever, so when I finished it in December I was genuinely lost. Well, I'm hoping he'll write a sixth story but there's no word of it yet on his website.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to write a review of each book, thus giving myself more space to gush over each one than if I posted about all five now!


I was given Dissolution by my friend for my birthday last August, but didn't start reading it until one annoyingly sleepless night in Rome in September. Prior to this series, I'd not read much crime fiction before. 

Set in 1537 during the dissolution of the monasteries, the protagonist, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, travels to Scarnsea to investigate the murder of Robin Singleton, one of Thomas Cromwell's commissioners. However, his investigation reveals far more than he bargained for...

Shardlake is a fascinating character, partly because he is a hunchback; the reader is constantly made aware of his disfigurement, through his own references to it and how characters react to him. Hunchbacks were symbols of bad luck during this period, and many characters whom he meets throughout the series are very rude and judgmental. I like Shardlake, because he can be ill-tempered and makes mistakes, experiencing the frustration of his cases rather than solving them with ease. Perhaps this is why the books are so gripping - there are so many revelations and surprises, it's impossible to predict what is going to happen.

Sansom successfully recreates Tudor England, with it's bleak sights and unpleasant smells. The brutality and fear are palpable, making the story even more engaging as Shardlake uncovers the truth behind Singleton's murder. The ending is cataclysmic, cleverly combining the fate of Mark Smeaton and Queen Anne Boleyn (executed in 1536 after 3 years as Henry VIII's second queen), as well as the monks of Scarnsea. I gasped when the murderer was revealed, as I really could not have guessed who was guilty.

Although I said earlier that many of the characters are unkind to Shardlake, Dissolution introduces one man who features in the rest of the series: Guy Malton. As a Catholic monk from Malaga, he is also treated with fear and suspicion due to his dark skin, but he proves to be a gentle, kind and intelligent friend to Shardlake. Interestingly, many of the characters in this series are outside of society, through race, religion, health, gender or sexuality; I appreciate how Sansom encompasses the people whom history has tried to 'write out'. 

I cannot recommend this book enough; I read it solidly for four hours, and have been raving about it ever since. I felt truly transported to Shardlake's world, completely absorbed in the story until the very last page.


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