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, Matthew Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr. Asked to investigate claims of ‘monstrous wrongs’ committed against his young ward, Hugh Curteys, by Sir Nicholas Hobbey, Shardlake and his assistant Barak journey to Portsmouth. There, Shardlake also intends to investigate the mysterious past of Ellen Fettiplace, a young woman incarcerated in the Bedlam.
Once in Portsmouth, Shardlake and Barak find themselves in a city preparing for war. The mysteries surrounding the Hobbey family, and the events that destroyed Ellen’s family nineteen years before, involve Shardlake in reunions both with an old friend and an old enemy close to the throne. Soon events will converge on board one of the King’s great warships in Portsmouth harbour, waiting to sail out and confront the approaching French fleet…
I discovered the author through last year’s World Book Night. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Dissolution (review) through that event and I fell in love with the character of Matthew Shardlake and his world. So when I was assured on Twitter that I didn’t have to read the books in-between, I couldn’t wait to start Heartstone.
It was possible to read the books out of order, but I did miss some of the nuances of Shardlake’s development. There events referenced from prior books, such as Shardlake’s stint in the Tower, the events that take place in York, his connection to Bedlam and how he originally met Ellen, where Barak came from, how he came to replace Mark and how Barak met and won Tamasin. But it didn’t impede on understanding the story or my enjoyment of it. However, it’s made me want to read the other three books even more badly.
I loved returning to Tudor times and learning more about Henry VIII’s period. Heartstone focuses on wardships, Henry’s wars with the French, and Portsmouth. There’s no Mark in Heartstone and just a little Guy, sadly, as I really loved these characters in Dissolution. However, Barak is a great foil for Shardlake’s almost obsessive desire to solve his cases. My only complaint with Barak is that sometimes his curses seemed somewhat too contemporary and thus were a little jarring. Despite this, there isy a richness to Sansom’s tale that is a delight. Partly this can be found in the details he includes, but it can also be found in the little subplots throughout the book, such as the mystery of Coldiron’s past and Tamasin’s pregnancy.
The connection Shardlake and Barak form with Leacon and his troop was wonderful. It gave the reader a close-up view what life in a company of archers was like in Tudor times. It’s the little details that make this so awesome, such as the buttons Sir Franklin gets all worked up over, the tension of levies thrown together regardless of class, and the little earwax scoop Carswell wins in a bet which he is happy about as it will help him keep his bow string waxed (can I just say yuck to that?). It also provides a different point of view on the war, it’s not all glory, honour and money, for the ordinary man drafted as a soldier, war, and especially this war, is just a damn fool thing. And it is a foolishness that can – and often will – cost them their lives.
Two separate cases form the meat of the book, Hugh’s and Ellen’s. While I found Hugh’s case interesting and a little boggling, I found Ellen’s just to be annoying. I could see Shardlake’s rationale for following through on it, but I was with Barak on this one, I just wanted him to drop it. Then again, Shardlake is known for his tenacity, but in these cases, even the beneficiaries of his work just wanted him to drop it, and his going on felt frustrating as it seemed not to lead anywhere or just seemed plain dangerous.
Of course Sansom solves this frustration brilliantly in the last few hundred pages by showing us there was actually something wrong in Hugh’s case and shows Ellen’s case is actually far more complex than just a young girl driven out of her mind by a brutal attack. The twists to both cases were surprising and where in Dissolution I had seen the culprit coming, in Heartstone the final resolutions were surprising, I hadn’t seen them coming at all. Those last few hundred pages make for a tense finale, culminating in a sea battle, which Shardlake witnesses from very close by.
I love historical fiction and crime and when they are combined in the way Sansom does, it’s a rare treat. Sansom manages to make me want to learn more about the history in his books, in this case about the Mary Rose and Henry’s other warships. To me that is the sign of a really great historical fiction author and Sansom certainly fits that bill. If you’ve read any of his previous novels and enjoyed them, or you just like historical crime fiction, Heartstone is really worth a read. I would however recommend that you read the books in order, just so you get all the nuances in character development that I missed.