Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Day 1280: The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors

Cover for The Last White RoseI’ve read a couple of histories by Desmond Seward now, one of which, The Wars of the Roses, did a much better job of explaining the complications of those wars than any other book I’ve read. In The Last White Rose, Seward details the attempts by the first two Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to wipe out the Plantagenet line.

Real or imagined conspiracies against the Tudors haunted the reigns of both these kings. At first, those conspiracies that actually existed had their roots in Henry VII’s very tenuous claim on the throne. There were still plenty of Yorkists around, and some of them had much better claims. It was Henry VII’s knowledge of these plots that led him to construct a complex web of spies for the state. Later, his growing paranoia led him to execute young Warwick, whose only crime was his birth.

Although Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of stamping out conspiracies, as he grew older and more erratic, he conducted a reign of terror. Courtiers were charged for slight errors or none at all. Henry succeeded in killing off almost every person with Plantagenet blood. His paranoia was manipulated by Thomas Cromwell, who invented conspiracies to rid himself or Henry of enemies.

Seward could be writing novels, his style is so easy to read and interesting. Although he introduces many players, he is somehow able to interest readers in all their fates. I found this another fascinating book about this period.

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Day 1196: Lamentation

Cover for LamentationAlthough at the end of the last Matthew Shardlake novel, Matthew vowed to change his life, it is not substantially different in 1546, the beginning of the last novel in the series. He has vowed not to become involved in any more political cases, yet he takes one more for Queen Catherine, formerly Catherine Parr.

The religious situation in England is more fraught than it has been. As King Henry is the head of the church, he believes that all must follow his beliefs. Yet he vacillates between a more conservative view of the church and the reformist view, with resultant trials for heresy on both sides. Right now, the conservatives, headed by Bishop Gardiner, seem to be in ascendance, and having a reformist queen would be very inconvenient for them. Queen Catherine’s followers are fairly sure that if the conservatives prevail, she’ll be brutally discarded.

Unfortunately, Catherine has written a document, Lamentation of a Sinner, and not destroyed it as she was advised. Although it is not heretical, it distinctly shows her reformist views. More seriously, Henry would view her having written it secretly as disloyalty. Unfortunately, the document has been stolen from a locked coffer for which only the Queen has the key. Matthew agrees to try to recover the manuscript.

At the beginning of his investigation, Matthew encounters the murder of a printer, Greening. This man belongs to a group of religious radicals, and he is found clutching a page of the Queen’s manuscript in his hand. The investigation is further confused when Matthew learns that Greening was printing another book, an account by Anne Askew of her treatment before she was burned for heresy.

I think that this last novel is the best of the series. Despite its bulk, it is fast moving and atmospherically charged, reflecting everyone’s fears at the time. No one in Sansom’s books, it is true, seems to have any sense of humor, and perhaps that is partially what has bothered me about the series. In any case, by the end of the novel, Matthew has certainly set foot on a different path.

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Day 1117: Heartstone

Cover for HeartstoneI’ve been slowly making my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series just to read Heartstone, which is on my Walter Scott prize list. Although I enjoy the period and Sansom’s thorough research, I will have to consider whether I want to follow the depressive Shardlake’s adventures further.

In Heartstone, Shardlake is summoned by the queen, who by now is Catherine Parr. She asks Matthew to investigate an allegation related to the Court of Wards and Augmentations, which is notoriously corrupt.

Michael Calfhill was employed as tutor to Hugh and Emma Curteys until their parents died. Their wardship was sold to Nicholas Hobbey, their neighbor, even as Michael and the vicar were trying to track down an aunt to take charge of them. Emma died from smallpox and Michael was dismissed, but he worried about Hugh. So, a few weeks ago, he went to visit him unannounced. He returned distraught, claiming he had found out something frightful and wanting a lawyer to sue to remove the wardship from Hobbey. But a few weeks later, he was dead of an apparent suicide. Bess Calfhill, his mother, was once servant to the queen and has gone to her for help.

Matthew is also interested in looking into another mystery. In the last book, he befriended Ellen Fettiplace, a resident of Bedlam. When he examines the records to see who is paying for her support, he learns that she was never committed there. Matthew has heard stories about Ellen that involve a rape and a fire. Since his business with Hobbey takes him near to her village, he decides to find out how she came to Bedlam.

This novel is set with the background of Henry VIII’s war with the French. Throughout the novel, the main characters encounter preparations for a French invasion, and Matthew’s investigations take him to Portsmouth just before the Battle of Solent.

I was easily able to guess the big secret in one case (although I’m not sure it was obvious), but I was mistaken about the other. Certainly, the mysteries are not the most important aspect of Sansom’s novels—they are just the force that drives it forward. Sansom has a talent for immersing readers in the period. Still, Matthew is lonely and sad, and his life seems to consist of one loss after another. In this novel, he decides to change his life, and I may read the next one just to see if he does. (I believe there is only one more.)

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 857: Dark Fire

Cover for Dark FireAt the start of this second Matthew Shardlake mystery, Matthew’s disillusionment with his master Thomas Cromwell has caused him to break free from Cromwell. He has had his own law practice for the past three years. The rumor now is that Cromwell may be failing in his influence over Henry VIII after he backed the marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves. The political maneuverings around Cromwell overshadow the entire novel.

But first Matthew takes on a case for a friend, Joseph Wentworth, whose niece Elizabeth has been accused of murdering her 12-year-old cousin Ralph by pushing him into a dry well. Although no one actually witnessed the crime, both his sisters were on the scene shortly afterwards and say that Elizabeth was the only one there. Elizabeth herself isn’t talking.

Matthew goes to see her in prison and is struck by her expression of fury. In court, he tries to argue lack of competency, but according to the laws of the time, if she won’t speak, she must be pressed until she will, a cruel death by crushing. Matthew is unable to prevent her from being sentenced to be pressed.

Next, he is summoned to see Cromwell by a rude young man named Jack Barak. Matthew learns that Cromwell was offered the secret of a powerful weapon called Dark Fire, or Greek Fire. This secret was brought back from the East years before by a monk. A container of it was found by Michael Cristwood in a deconsecrated abbey, along with the formula, and he and his alchemist brother worked on the formula and a dispenser before demonstrating the weapon to Cromwell. Now Cromwell has promised a demonstration to the king in 10 days, but the Cristwoods have disappeared.

Cromwell wants Matthew and Barak to find the Dark Fire and the formula within ten days. He is counting on this discovery to save his position. Matthew makes a deal with Cromwell—if he will save Elizabeth from pressing, Matthew will look for the Dark Fire.

Matthew and Barak soon find Michael Cristwood dead but no sign of the apparatus or formula. Two thugs seem to be just ahead of them, murdering anyone who knows about Dark Fire and attempting to murder Matthew and Barak. Soon it becomes clear to Matthew that some powerful patron is behind the thugs, but who is it?

Although this Matthew Shardlake novel also has a powerful sense of place, London during a sultry 1540 summer, his investigation seems bogged down in this novel. He just seems to be questioning the same people over and over to little result. In any case, I was far more interested in the mystery of Elizabeth and her cousin, which was only incidental to the story. Some of the truth of that case seemed apparent almost at once, although not to our protagonist.

Still, I will continue with the series. I have as a goal to read all the Walter Scott Prize winners and nominees, and Samson’s Heartstone, the fifth in this series, is on the list. But I want to read the books in order. So, I’m committed to the series at least until book five.

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Day 651: Literary Wives! The Last Wife of Henry VIII

Cover for The Last Wife of Henry VIIIAgain, we have a group book review with Literary Wives, where a group of bloggers get together and review the same book about wives on the same day. If you have read this month’s book and would like to participate, leave comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!


In considering The Last Wife of Henry VIII, I come smack up against the issue I’ve mentioned in the reviews of several historical novels based on the lives of actual people. That is, how an author can make the subject interesting while staying faithful to the events of the person’s life and to the person’s character.

In this novel, Erickson has a fairly clean slate to work with, because Catherine Parr’s life has not been covered as exhaustively as that of other Tudors. Yet it is one thing in historical fiction to invent the details of ordinary life and another to present readers with questionable events. The most obvious of these is to have Parr’s love affair with Thomas Seymour begin while she was still married to John Neville, when to all indications it began after Neville’s death, when she was left a relatively wealthy widow. And, might I add, the unlikelihood that they continued their physical relationship (if they had one) while she was married to Henry VIII. Not in that court and atmosphere, with that history, I’m guessing.

But this is aside from the point that with all this inventing, Erickson still fails to make Catherine Parr an interesting character or her story compelling—despite the fact that it probably was compelling. The actual Catherine was much more capable and influential than Erickson’s character, in fact.

Literary Wives logoWhat does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

First, for the Tudors wives were bargaining chips. The novel depicts Catherine as taking control of her own fate in some of her marriages, but only within limits. That is, in both instances if she hadn’t had another suitor, she would have had to marry the person chosen for her. Within the marriages, the limits to her spheres of action are chosen by her husband unless, as in her marriage to Seymour, she has her own money, which gives her leverage. In three of her marriages, her husband’s activities or relations with her husband’s relatives make her position insecure, so much so in her first marriage that she is left a poor and unprotected widow, at least according to Erickson. I would submit that in actuality, what left her insecure after the death of Henry VIII was more likely her marriage to Thomas Seymour than anything else.

In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by wife?

Catherine usually tries to do her duty by her husband, whether she loves him or not. The exception is her affair with Thomas Seymour while she was married to John Neville (which I don’t believe actually happened). In the terms of the novel, this is probably supposed to make it more romantic (it doesn’t), but it makes her character less consistent. I would say that for Parr, a wife is dutiful, affectionate, and tries to do the right thing. Her marriage to Henry VIII also shows her as compassionate, capable, and politically astute. Her marriage to Thomas Seymour, on the other hand, shows her as fatuous and besotted, unfortunately the reputation that has survived her. If I can sneak in a comment about stepmothers here, I believe her actual relationship with Henry’s children was much warmer than depicted in the novel.

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Day 345: The Chalice

Cover for The ChaliceI am not sure why I found this novel so irritating. Possibly it is because it is a sequel, but nowhere on the cover is that indicated, and this novel is definitely one that requires knowledge of the previous book, which I have not read.

Joanna Stafford is a former Dominican novice after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. At the beginning of the novel she is in Canterbury with some ex-monks about to commit some serious act, but then the action turns back several months.

Joanna is living in Dartford with her young cousin and her friends Brother Edmund and Sister Winifred, a former monk and nun who are sister and brother. Some of the townspeople are suspicious of the former residents of the priory, but Joanna has plans to continue there and set up a loom to weave tapestries.

Soon, however, her cousins Gertrude and Henry Courtenay arrive to invite her and her cousin Arthur for a visit. Little does Joanna know that Gertrude is aware that Joanna is the subject of a prophecy, which a group of Catholics believe will save Catholicism in England. Apparently, in the previous novel she received a prophecy and was told she would learn it in full after she received three prophecies. Since her family was destroyed as the result of a prophecy, however, she has promised never to dabble in it again. She is soon subject to immense pressure from Gertrude Courtenay and others, including the Lady Mary Tudor and the Spanish ambassador Chapuys, to see a seer.

The novel does not seem very coherent. Joanna is told she must hear the prophecies of her own free will, yet all kinds of pressures and threats are applied to make her hear them. She is refusing to hear the prophecy, then she isn’t. Then we go through the same thing with the next prophecy. Some of her decisions seem completely unlikely for a person who is extremely religious and was previously a novice. At one point in the book she throws herself at two different men within the space of weeks.

It takes an incredibly long time to feel certain that we’ve learned of everything revealed in the first book–new facts keep popping up until nearly halfway through the volume. This is not a stand-alone novel by any means. Whether it would be more satisfying for someone who has read the first book I cannot answer.

Day 265: Here Was a Man: A Novel of Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth I

Cover for Here Was a ManI don’t think I’ve read anything by Norah Lofts before, but even though she was a prolific historical novelist, I would rate this effort as mediocre.

Here Was a Man attempts to draw most of Raleigh’s life in a short space and does so by a series of vignettes illustrating important events. Although I am not completely familiar with his career, I know that Lofts  has chosen to portray a couple of apocryphal events, in particular the cloak in the mud story, which I believe has no basis in fact. The other serious lack of the novel is any depth of characterization.

The novel begins with Raleigh as a teenager, listening to sailors’ tales and dreaming of traveling the seas. He is also full of ambition for worldly success, an ambition that sometimes works to his disadvantage.

We are told many times about Raleigh’s sense of adventure, but we don’t really feel it. In fact, he seems to spend more time in prison than on his adventures. It is curious, too, that although he has many enemies at court, at least in this novel he has done nothing to earn their enmity. I would doubt that was really the case.

Raleigh is probably a character who could support an interesting and exciting novel, but this is not it. To be fair, it looks like it may have been one of Lofts’ first works.

Day 201: The School of Night

The School of NightCoincidentally, this summer I read and reviewed Shadow of Night, and The School of Night by Louis Bayard is another novel that deals with the School of Night, a group of Elizabethan scholars who pursued forbidden knowledge. Its members were Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Harriot, and Kit Marlowe, among others. The School of Night follows events in two time periods, the present and 1603.

Ten years ago Henry Cavendish was an Elizabethan scholar with a promising future, but he was disgraced when he accepted as legitimate a forged letter supposedly by Sir Walter Raleigh and presented it at a conference. Since then, he has barely eked out a living, teaching part-time, doing editing work, and taking whatever jobs he can get. His only true friend is the eccentric Alonzo Wax, a collector and purveyor of rare books.

But Alonzo is dead, having drowned himself after trying to contact Henry, and Henry finds himself the estate executor. Shortly after the funeral, Henry is contacted by another collector, Bernard Styles, who shows him the second page of a letter by Raleigh that he alleges Alonzo stole from him. This letter makes a rare reference to the School of Night. Styles offers Henry a lot of money to find the letter in Alonzo’s papers and give it to him.

Henry also meets Clarissa Dale, who claims to have made Alonzo’s acquaintance after a lecture about the School of Night. Although she is not an academic, she has been having visions of Thomas Harriot and an assistant named Margaret and wants to find out why.

Henry has barely begun to work with Alonzo’s papers when Alonzo’s secretary, Lily Pentzler, is murdered and all of Alonzo’s books are stolen. This incident makes Henry and Clarissa wonder if Alonzo was murdered, too. Soon, Henry and Clarissa find themselves investigating the secrets of the letter.

Alternating with the present-time story is that of Thomas Harriot, the leader of the School of Night, as he explores Virginia and later works on his forbidden experiments while hidden away on the estate of the Earl of Percy. Finding that his maid servant Margaret can read, he begins to train her to assist him in his experiments.

Although I guessed one important secret early on, I found this novel deeply satisfying. It is full of twists and betrayals and has interesting characters. It treats the historical plot intelligently, and although this comment is not meant as a criticism of Shadow of Night, it deals more seriously with the School of Night than does Shadow of Night (which of course has a completely different focus).

I had not read Bayard before, but he is known for writing historical mysteries that feature such characters as a grown-up Tiny Tim (Mr. Timothy) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Pale Blue Eye). I am interested in reading more.