Book Review: Heartstone by C. J. Sansom

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Heartstone is the fifth in the brilliant series charting the investigations of Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in King Henry VIII’s reign. It is Summer, 1545 and England is at war. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel. Meanwhile, Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr, which brings Shardlake into the frontline of the naval battle.

Like the other books in the series, C. J. Sansom’s writing raises the sense of Tudor England from the pages, creating vivid images of the scenes in the reader’s mind. It is easy, at times, to forget that you are reading from a very different time frame. At others, it felt like the historical detail was overwritten. Too much description of costume, of weaponry, and mind-numbing detail of Portsmouth in preparation for battle, and of the Mary Rose itself. The weighty descriptions lead to a vast book, which I confess to skimming in places.

Of all the books in the series, Heartstone is the one that I have enjoyed the least. That said, it is still a worthwhile read. More than its predecessors, it feels more plot driven, over character. We know and understand Shardlake well, and that of his side-kick, Jack Barack, others seem more as outlines. Only when I had made it to the author’s notes at the end, when C. J.  Sansom revealed that a book about The Mary Rose was his editor’s suggestion, did it somehow make sense. The Mary Rose was incidental to both of the mysteries that Shardlake was on a mission to solve. Firstly, the Queen’s mission to solve a case in The Court of Wards and the second one, his own, to uncover the truth behind why a young girl, Ellen, had been placed in Bedlam. The stories, of course, collide, but could have occurred without The Mary Rose – since it was the characters that linked the stories, not where they were.

The characters, aside of the ones we know, felt less polished than in others in the series. Heartstone has an evil lawyer in opposition to Shardlake and plenty of corrupt officials. All dark to Shardlake’s light. The advancement of the story relied more on coincidences and the belligerence of Shardlake – and even that wore thin to his loyal Jack Barack. Barack voiced frustration that I was feeling.

It will come as no surprise to those who know their history that The Mary Rose sunk, and this was something that Heartstone was heading towards. C. J.  Sansom’s detail, as referenced, was thick and doubtless accurate. Many details are sewn from the exhibits of the excellent Mary Rose Museum. What felt fabricated was how the hunchback lawyer extricated himself from the battle, and from a sinking ship. In fact, throughout the book, one had a sense that many more would have been murdered for less than he interfered with, with or without the Queen’s protection. Shardlake was the lawyer with nine lives.

Of all the books in the series, the outstanding Dissolution was the one that hooked me, and Revelation the one that still haunts me. Heartstone I fear will be more easily forgotten. I know there is another in the series to read, but Shardlake seems to be running out of steam. It must be nearly time for him to retire.

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