This is quite an unusual book, and I really enjoyed it for that reason. It is a murder mystery set in Tudor times, so there is a gripping story yet also a fascinating history lesson. The murder mystery aspect was very good with lots of twists and turns, and plenty to keep the reader guessing. I found the historical aspect of the story really interesting though and vividly portrayed, due to the fact the characters felt very real and were living very believable lives, I found this brought this period in history more alive for me than any history book, and I was fascinated by Matthew Shardlake’s world.

The main character is Matthew Shardlake who works for, and is a supporter of, Thomas Cromwell. He is sent to solve the murder of a colleague who was killed while investigating a monastery, ensuring the monks were abiding by Henry the VIII’s new laws and assessing whether this particular monastery was destined for dissolution. There are plenty of suspicious characters who could be the murderer, and plenty to keep the reader guessing. Matthew Shardlake is an interesting character; he seems too nice and trusting to be on Cromwell’s side, and these qualities make it difficult for him to enforce the new laws and to support unquestioningly King Henry’s draconian measures. I do like Shardlake; he tries his best to believe in King Henry and Cromwell, as they are in charge of his country and he loves his country, and he strikes me that he’s the type of person that just follows authority. However the reader is privy to his doubts, even though he feels guilty for these doubts, and I like him for the fact he isn’t like all of King Henry’s other brutal and selfish followers.

I also found the book gave me an interesting viewpoint of the monks – I had always felt sympathy for them for how their lives were turned upside down by King Henry’s new measures, and how they were persecuted, and had to make the agonising decision of abandoning their original religion and adopting King Henry’s, or leave the monastery (their home) and face likely torture and death. Although I do still have sympathy for them, the story painted a slightly different picture of them as rich, selfish landowners with great privileges who took full advantage of the poor people living around them.

I have also read the second book in this series (Dark Fire) which was just as enjoyable. However an aspect of both books that I struggled with and found difficult to read, was the accounts of the sheer cruelty of the time and the terrible torture that went on in the Tower of London. It was disturbing to read some of the descriptions of what went on, and I also realised, disturbingly, that many of the everyday sayings I use relate to practices undertaken during this period, eg “I’d be hard-pressed to say,” I feel gutted,” “racked with guilt,” – I find I am now making a conscious effort not to use those sayings as their real origin is too vividly ingrained in my mind now!

But, tales of torture aside, this is a great series of books, very well written, and fascinating in its uniqueness of being set in Tudor times.

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