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A book review by Steven Wu
November 07, 2009
|Rating: 8 (of 10)|
Shardlake is an appealing protagonist. He has a sharp mind and a comfortable profession (in Revelation, he's just been selected to be a serjeant, the highest order of barrister), but his physical deformity has also humbled him and given him a keen eye for the suffering of others. Shardlake's empathy contrasts sharply with the brutality of Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII. Sansom never makes the mistake of giving Shardlake any modern ideas -- his view of science can be quite backward -- but Shardlake's inability to accept the callousness of his peers makes him an effective translator between our era and his.
As with each previous volume, Revelation begins with a crime: here, a sensational murder in Lincoln's Inn of Court. Shardlake assumes responsibility for that investigation, for personal reasons, but naturally that isn't enough. He also finds himself charged with responsibility for a friend's insane son, who is imprisoned in Bedlam. And soon enough, he is summoned back into the poisonous center of English royalty, which has again taken an interest in crimes that are anything but ordinary.
The Shardlake novels are formulaic, but even with a constant structure they deliver plenty of surprises. Sansom is a master at "pinging" readers with hints, portents, and red herrings, and the sadistic villain wreaking havoc in Revelation is uncommonly canny, even for this series. Sansom also keeps things interesting by dropping out of the main mysteryevery once in a while to dwell on the side stories -- not just the mad son of a friend, but also some suspicious behavior by his friend Guy's medical assistant. While none of the side stories are as interesting as the main mystery, they do a good job of keeping the reader unsettled, especially before any major twist.
What has really distinguished the series, however, is not its mysteries, but rather its ruminations on the exhilaration and corruption of power. Previous books have seen Shardlake fall under the aegis of Thomas Cromwell, only to see him broken; and Revelation's immediate predecessor, Sovereign, contained a memorable meeting between Shardlake and Henry VIII on an open road outside of York.
Unfortunately, that unique angle is mostly missing in Revelation, which is to say that politics takes a back seat to the mystery. That may be more to the taste of genre fans, who will enjoy the devious twists that Shardlake must unravel. But I found the book a missed opportunity to explore -- as Sansom has done so effectively before -- the curious hold that ambition has on men.
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