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C.J. Sansom
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Winter in Madrid
hardcover
536 pages
Marketed as a Zafon-esque journey through wartime Madrid this historical effort by historian/novelist CJ Sansom doesn't quite deliver. Still an altogether different and enjoyable experience.

Having greatly enjoyed Shadow Of The Wind (like so many other people) I was lured to this book by promises that it was in a similar vein. I feel that Sansom has been done a great injustice by this, since it builds an expectation of a very different novel from that which is delivered.

However, while not as good as SOTW, it is, in a very different way, a pretty enjoyable read still, even if a bit overly long perhaps. It's far starker and more descriptive, immersing you in a largely accurate portrayal (the author pens an apologetic historical note where the plot has forced certain inaccuracies) of 1940s Madrid, and particularly of the suffering endured by the Spanish people under Franco.

The story focuses around three British citizens pursuing very different agenda. Sandy Forsyth is a small time con man turned entrepreneur, working with Franco's delicately balanced government on a secret project; Dunkirk survivor Harry Brett is his former public school roommate, hand picked by the security services to investigate Forsyth's business dealings; and in the middle is Barbara Clare, Forsyth's girlfriend, who still holds out hope of finding her lover, Bernie Piper, who everyone else believes died in battle at Jarama.

Their respective adventures mostly take place in cafeterias and bars across Madrid, before eventually ramping up to an unexpectedly fast paced conclusion. The trysts and meetings in various places are played out with excellently penned dialogue, and Sansom displays a true gift at conveying emotion in the characters.

While this book does not have the darkness, confusion and, frankly, beauty of Zafon's work, it is still good enough to be recommendable.
7/10
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C.J, Sansom
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Revelation
hardcover
550 pages
The fourth in CJ Sansom's superb Tudor detective series. A serial killer is on the loose in 16th century England, and serjeant Matthew Shardlake has to catch him.

The year is 1543 and the hunchbacked lawyer and sometime detective Matthew Shardlake has sworn not to involve himself in any more affairs of state after his last brush with the factions of King Henry's court in Sovereign (2007). But his quiet working life is shattered when his old friend Roger Elliard, a fellow lawyer, is found with his throat cut in Lincoln's Inn fountain. When the king's coroner seems to be covering up the murder, Shardlake promises Elliard's widow that he will find the killer, a mission he shares with Archbishop Cranmer, who must keep the investigation a secret from the king. If it fails, they could all lose their heads.

What Shardlake begins to uncover is more horrifying than anything he and his hot-blooded young assistant Jack Barak have yet had to face. There have been multiple killings in previous books, but this is the first time Shardlake has found himself on the trail of a serial killer in the modern mould, one who treats killing as both a holy mission and an art form, and takes as much pleasure in teasing his pursuers as in the murders themselves.

It would not be giving too much away to say that the killer is basing his murders on the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, whose apocalyptic visions have recently been opened to the common people through the king's reforms. I suspect a homage to David Fincher's 1995 film Se7en - the murders are every bit as imaginatively gruesome and symbolic. As with the previous books, Sansom's narrative is highly visual and Revelation will clearly make a white-knuckle film (a BBC series is reportedly in development starring Kenneth Branagh).

Shardlake has been dubbed 'the Tudor Morse'; like Morse, he is solitary, cerebral, occasionally flawed and driven by a belief in an ideal of justice that stands above the petty rivalries of his profession. He has the same fierce moral core, but he also has a warmth that Morse lacked, which leaves the reader feeling torn whenever a potential love interest appears; you'd like it to work out for him, but he just wouldn't be Shardlake if he ended up in cosy domestic bliss.

The other great appeal of these books, apart from the cast of regular characters, is the richness of Sansom's historical research. He has a doctorate in history and a previous career as a lawyer, but wears his considerable expertise lightly. He also achieves the rare alchemy of combining characters who are sympathetically modern in their psychology with a setting that is authentically historical. He leads us through 16th-century London as confidently as if he lived there himself and even without the helpful endpaper maps, the reader can immediately visualise the muddy streets, the marshes along the South Bank and the ancient City walls.

Revelation takes a little time to get its main plot rolling but it is very skilfully structured - not an incident is wasted - and once the killer's intentions become clear, don't expect to put the book down until you've seen it through to the apocalyptic finale.
9/10
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C.J. Sansom
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Sovereign
paperback
660 pages
This is the third Matthew Shardlake novel, following on from Dissolution and Dark Fire. Shardlake is now a much more established character, with Jack Barak as his foil and sidekick, and this is a much more assured novel (which, considering how excellent the first two books are is very impressive). It is 1541 and, after the fall of Cromwell, Shardlake has gone back to his law practice and has taken Barak on to work with him. They are not the only ones to remember Thomas Cromwell though – it is rumoured that the King himself regrets losing such a loyal and competent servant. Shardlake had hoped his days of being involved in the Court are behind him, but he is asked by no less than Archbishop Cranmer, who had been told by Cromwell himself of his discretion, to escort a prisoner from York to London.

Henry is making a Progress in the North. A conspirator, Sir Edward Broderick, is being sent from York to the Tower of London and Shardlake is told to ensure he arrives safely within the Tower walls. However, shortly after arriving in York, Shardlake hears a scream and finds a glazier has been killed. Before he dies, he tells Shardlake, “no child of Henry and Catherine Howard can ever be true heir.” Unwillingly, Shardlake is told to investigate by Maleverer; a crony of his old enemy Richard Rich. Soon, Shardlake is trapped in an unenviable situation – forced to deal with a conspiracy which strikes at the very heart of the succession to the throne, embroiled in treason and with his life in increasing danger, whilst also having to try to keep Broderick alive and well in order to face torture in London.

The characters in this novel are a mix of real and fictional, but they are all so well cast, that it is impossible to say which is which. There is the sadistic jailer, Radwinter, Jennet Marlin, a member of the Queen’s servants, young Tamasin Reedbourne, who catches Barak’s eye, Lady Rochester – former wife of George Boleyn – the new young Queen Catherine, who is way out of her depth, the arrogant young men who surround her, including Culpepper and Dereham, and the elderly lawyer, Giles Wrenne, who befriends Shardlake. Indeed, Shardlake needs a friend in this book. With Barak busy being in love, under pressure from Maleverer and Rich, with several attempts on his life and humiliated by King Henry himself, this really makes you face the reality of the Tudor world. We are taken behind the pomp to the backstage of Court life, from the grandeur of the King to the vicious reality of power; even to the real fear and horror of torture in the dungeons beneath the Tower itself. A wonderful read in a brilliant series.

Recommended
8/10
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Running Apache