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This is the seventh episode in C.J. Sansom's history of Tudor England and the life of Matthew Shardlake, hunchback, dogged investigator, but most of all lawyer, one who once acted in the service of Thomas Cromwell and thereafter has taken on assignments from several significant players close to the king. Most recently, he did his best to prevent publication of a text that would have seriously damaged Catherine Parr, Henry's final wife and a woman with whom Shardlake fell hopelessly in love. But that was three years ago. Now Henry VIII is dead, as is Catherine, and eleven-year-old Edward VI is on the throne, with his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, acting as Protector.
These events have left Shardlake underemployed. Worse, he is feeling lonely, single, childless, separated from his former assistant Jack Barak, whose wife blames him for the events that led to Barak's losing a hand. Then, what seems almost a happy opportunity arises - he is called to look into the death of Edith Boleyn, whose husband John has been charged with her murder. John is Elizabeth's third cousin, a fairly distant connection, but already certain interests are protective of the fifteen-year-old potential heir to the throne. She must be shielded against any potential scandal.
The mission sends Shardlake into Norfolk, a part of the country where he has never been, and very quickly into the centre of a growing rebellion of yeoman farmers, small-holders, and workers who are demanding relief from what they can only view as the injustices that have robbed them of their very livelihood. The enclosures of common land to graze wool-bearing sheep, which make them off-limits to the small farmers who used them to pasture their domestic livestock, a disastrous war against Scotland, controversy over the introduction of more Protestant forms of worship, including the Book of Common Prayer, and galloping inflation due to the adulteration of coinage, all these combine to create a pervasive sense of loss and impoverishment that was about to come to a startling head in the summer of 1549, just as Shardlake must travel to the Norwich Summer Assizes to aid Elizabeth's cousin.
Shardlake is accompanied on his journey to Norwich, which was at the time England's second-largest city, by his law clerk, Nicholas Overton. Nicholas has been disowned by his family because he has refused an advantageous marriage. He is young and angry at his loss of rank and status, always ready for an argument if he believes himself insulted. He loudly and firmly identifies with the upper classes and lacks the sense to keep his mouth shut about it, even when surrounded by some very angry peasants. Shardlake, on the other hand, is not a convert to rebellion, especially at the beginning, but his own rather humble beginnings, coupled with the contempt shown him because of his disability, as well as his mature experience in the law has made him open to revising his opinions.
The uprising into which Shardlake and Nicholas are swept is little remembered today. I was embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of it, but I am far from alone in that ignorance. Led by two brothers, both small farmers, William and Robert Kett, mature men, by the standards of the day bordering on elderly, it is called Kett's Rebellion, and, judging by Sansom's meticulous scholarship, deserves both respect and wider recognition. Though it may have been fuelled by anger and despair, the Ketts managed to impose a measure of order and restraint upon their followers that is both unusual and admirable.
In Shardlake, who acts as on-the-ground reporter as the events unfold over the few weeks that the rebellion unfolded, we have a marvellous observer. In an appended historical essay, Sansom regrets what he calls "the royalization of popular Tudor history" that even he has succumbed to on occasion. He certainly makes up for it in TOMBLAND, where our eyes like Shardlake's are opened to the condition of the lower classes in rural England at the time, as well as to the remarkable strengths and resilience that members of those classes were capable of exhibiting. Shardlake, pressed into service by Robert Kett to oversee the legal activities of the rebels, is an unwilling accomplice at first, but gradually becomes more sympathetic to the rebels and their cause and so must the reader.
Through all this, Shardlake continues to try to get to the bottom of the murder of Edith Boleyn and the subsequent murders of others who may have been able to reveal who killed her. As ever, though he is less and less sure of what he believes in, he never doubts the law and the need to seek justice. All the same, this is not a mystery story wrapped in an historical cloak. The mystery is important (and readers are supplied with sufficient clues to solve it on their own) but it is the history that grips and keeps us reading.
For a long time now, I have been complaining about book bloat - the bulking out of rather slender little stories by unnecessary detail and excessive elaboration of plot. With its appendix - historical essay, footnotes, and bibliography, TOMBLAND weighs in at 866 pages. It is not a word too long. In the earlier novel HEARTSTONE, I thought that Sansom had perhaps reached his peak in his description of the sinking of the Mary Rose, but I was wrong. TOMBLAND is a masterpiece of historical fiction and I cannot imagine what the author can do for an encore. I hope someday to find out.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2018
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