Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Dark Fire, by CJ Sansom

Tudorian England is brought to life in this highly suspenseful novel of murder and mayhem in London.

Its 1540, and King Henry is preparing to divorce his fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves, and marry "the harlot" Catherine Howard. All of London is on shaky ground, as loyalties shift back and forth. Everyone is concerned that, with Catherine as Queen of England, the country will be returned back to its Catholic past. Into all this comes Thomas Cromwell, advisor to the king and strongly out of disfavor due to the Cleves marriage. Cromwell feeels that he must get back into the graces of king by digging up Greek Fire- a Weapon of Mass Destruction that could make or break the future of England. He will give the king a demonstration on June 10th- an inocuous day, since it turns out to be the day on which Cromwell is arrested by the king's men. Greek Fire itself, a real substance, was invented by the Byzantines and needs petroleum in order to make it work properly. It is called Dark Fire because the formula is of a black color. The author made up the whole bit about Greek Fire being rediscovered, since there is no way that the English could have known about natural gas in the 16th century. Despite this, this is an excellent read.

Matthew Shardlake is a highly regarded lawyer in the City. On the same day that he is hired to investigate Greek Fire, he is also called to investigate the case of Elizabeth Wentworth, who supposidly pushed her cousin Ralph down a well. The case is a gruesome one; and what is found down at the bottom of the well is not for the sqeemish.

The case of Greek Fire leads Shardlake and his assistant, Barak, to investigate the ruins of the old monasteries, torn down in the eight years since King Henry's break with Rome. In the course of their investigation, they have run-ins with a pock-faced man, a wealthy noblewoman, and the uncle of Catherine Howard. London is detailed in intimate detail, and emphasis is placed upon the lives of ordinary people in 16th-century London. This is an exciting, fast-paced read, good for anyone who likes mysteries and historical fiction. In addition, the author includes a very helpful historical note at the end which details the historical authenticity of Greek Fire and explains the whole Henry-Anne of Cleves-Catherine Howard-Thomas Cromwell deal.

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