I must admit that a friend gave me Sovereign, by C. J. Sansom, years ago and I was hesitant about it. I was turned off by the fact that it was third in a series and thought I would find it difficult to follow. But having lately been running low on books I returned to it and realized I was so very wrong! The cover quote from the Sunday Times could not be more correct in its description of the book as “so compulsive that, until you reach its final page, you’ll have to be almost physically prised away from it”. Sovereign might be the third of the Shardlake series but it truly stands on its on.
Sovereign is both historical fiction and a mystery novel set in 1541. The Sovereign is none other than Henry VII during the time of his northern progress following The Pilgrimage of Grace. His queen of the moment is Katherine Howard. The plot is complex as lawyer Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barack, arrive in York on a commission from Cramner to attend to legal petitions but also to look after the welfare of an important prisoner who is needed alive at the Tower for torture by “the professionals”. Matthew Shardlake is a hunchback and has been on the receiving end of taunts since childhood. Because of his own deformity he is quick to be compassionate to the plight of others. He had previously been in the service of Cromwell and had a reputation for reliability and discretion. Barak, another past associate of Cromwell, serves Shardlake as clerk, spy, bodyguard and trusted friend. Once in York they find themselves entwined in a mysterious series of events following the death of a workman at St. Mary’s, to be the King’s residence while in York, and are appointed to investigate the death. Shardlake is a determined truth seeker and a firm believer in justice and it is his tenaciousness that almost costs him his life.
While I am a huge fan of historical fiction I must admit I am not an avid reader of mystery novels, but Sansom not only provides an accurate historical context and characters as well as a plausible resolution to a historical debate. All of this in addition to the multi-layered twists and turns characteristic of a mystery-based novel. Sansom gives the reader wonderful descriptions of the many characters, places and events many of which the Tudor enthusiast will immediately recognize. Sovereign is truly a brilliant piece of work. I HIGHLY recommend it.