Dark Fire – C J Sansom
I read C J Samson’s debut novel a couple of years ago now. I enjoyed it immensely and immediately identified it as a series I would follow. Like so many books I seem do this with, I then took an eternal age to actually getting round to book two. This is not a reflection on the author or the series just my own inability to stay in touch with the series I am reading. For instance, I mentioned to my friend that I had just started Dark Fire and he said, “Oh yes, the series about the hunchback.” This did not ring any bells with me, I recalled the main events of “Dissolution” but the fact that Matthew Shardlake was a hunchback completely slipped my mind. Note to self – don’t leave it so long between books.
The year is 1540. Shardlake has been pulled, against his better judgement, into defending Elizabeth Wentworth, charged with murdering her cousin. He is powerless to help the girl, yet she is suddenly given a reprieve - courtesy of Cromwell. The cost of the reprieve to Shardlake is two weeks once again in his service.
It is little secret that I love Robert McCammon’s Matthew Corbett series, but if you are looking for an alternative to fill in the time between Robert’s books, you can’t go far wrong with this series.
Matthew Shardlake is indeed a hunchback. This automatically imposes restrictions on his movements and makes him at odds with the world. He has grown up enduring the cruel japes of other children and even adults still comment on his disability. Matthew as a result has chosen to spend his life in books, choosing to use his brain rather than the lack of brawn he was born with.
Any character in any book who has to overcome obstacles just to survive in the world is immediately more interesting than the perfect swordsman or the good looking hero. Matthew is no exception. Like Matthew Corbett, he is likeable from the start. A man that sees how the world should be and strives to do good.
In Dark Fire, he is up against pretty much everyone for the outset. The fascination lies in how he ingratiates himself with the aristocracy to varying degrees of success. Some recognise his intelligence as an asset whilst other are jealous of it or see him as interfering in matters beyond him.
The best interaction comes with the enforced pairing of Matthew and Barak. The chemistry between the two characters is excellent. Two men from completely different background are forced to work together. This results in some compelling dialogue. The way their relationship is developed is portrayed excellently as each is grudgingly forced to admit the strengths of the other and acknowledge their value.
As a secondary character, Barak is fleshed out well. Not only does his character grow as he interacts with Matthew but we also see his perceptions change towards others characters such as Guy.
Barak is not the only character who is well handled. All of the characters Matthew is forced to converse with in his investigations are intriguing. Bealey is suitably despicable, whilst Lady Honour more than just your lady of leisure. In fact the weakest character is probably Cromwell himself. He is largely kept to the periphery of the action and is portrayed as someone to be feared because of his position. I can see why C J Samson has done this however, as by minimizing the role of Cromwell it gives him more license to tell his own story.
The plot is mainly divided up into two investigations. One, although dealing with murder is on a small scale and the other larger investigation regards the safety of the country. The two provide a nice contrast to each other and serve to keep both plot threads fresh. C J Samson strikes the perfect balance of pacing the time Matthew spends on each case and the novel is richer for it.
The setting of the novel is well described. I am certainly no expert of the time period but the novel depicts well the hardship of the times. To travel to an inn a few streets away involves negotiating the muddy streets, meandering through fallen carts and even being diverted whilst buildings are dismantled. All add to the story and give it an authentic feel. On a personal note, the book is based around Fleet Street which is where I currently work and so the description of the streets of London in the time period I found to be fascinating.
The ending ties up all of the plot threads well. I had a small issue with Matthew not seeing something that was glaringly obvious but it did not spoil my enjoyment of the novel. “Dark Fire” reminded me just how good this series is. I will not leave it so long before I pick up the next novel that’s for sure.
My Rating: 8.9