Sovereign by C. J. Sansom

Desmond Ryan
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

C.J. Sansom's richly textured historical thriller Sovereign is set in the 1540s and in the darkening twilight of Henry VIII's grip on power.


Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 0670038318
Author: C. J. Sansom
Price: $25.95
Length: 592
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03

For even the most seasoned traveler, it was a nightmare of vile food, unsanitary conditions, endless waiting, and testiness from those supposedly in charge of the journey. Today, we would reflexively assume that this had to be a trip to the airport in the forlorn hope of reaching one's destination within the next week or so.

But in C.J. Sansom's richly textured historical thriller Sovereign, which is set in the 1540s and in the darkening twilight of Henry VIII's grip on power, the description refers to what was loftily called a Royal Progress.

Here the monarch ventured to the farthest reaches of his realm at the head of a vast retinue to awe his subjects with displays of pomp that were hardly justified by the circumstances. And while Henry VIII, the aging and paranoid monster at the heart of Sansom's novel, made the progress with every creature comfort, his lesser courtiers and minor officials expected only the misery of trailing along in an endless cavalcade in his muddy wake with the rest of the vast horde of servants, camp followers and knaves that followed the king.

Sovereign is the third installment of a series Sansom began with Dissolution and continued with Dark Fire -- two stark re-creations of Henry's England that proclaimed the arrival of a first-rate historical novelist. If you are already tired of the sexed-up vision of the period in The Tudors, Sansom provides a sobering antidote.

Here is a world where life is short and brutal. Crows pick at the rotting corpses of felons left to dangle from gibbets as a warning to others. Religious persecution and political conspiracy are everywhere and trust in anyone is a dangerous assumption. The foul-smelling, festering ulcer on the leg of the now grossly obese king is, in Sansom's melancholy vision, an emblem of the larger cancer eating into the body politic of England.

Sansom makes two bold decisions for this journey. At 582 pages (including a bibliography that attests to the range and diligence of his research), the book is almost long enough to see you through most of the wait for your luggage at the US Airways terminal. But in this case, the generous length is amply sustained as much by the consistently vivid evocation of the Tudor world as by the turns of the plot.

Sansom takes another risk in casting the story in the first person of Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer of Dissolution and Dark Fire. Historical fiction that takes this path often trips up by putting the narrator in the implausible and often clumsy position of explaining facts and background that may be new to the reader but are patently obvious to him.

With the exception of some arcane discourse on the dynastic credentials of various rival claimants to the throne seized by Henry's father, Sansom is remarkably adept at avoiding the pitfalls of unfolding the story through one voice and perspective.

It helps that Shardlake, by his physical affliction and disposition, is an outsider casting the jaded eye of a disillusioned idealist on the venality and violence of the court. There is much further disenchantment as he goes about the business of serving as a sort of legal advance man for the monarch and vetting petitions to be presented to Henry.

Murder soon intrudes, and Shardlake's mission is further complicated when he is given the responsibility of escorting a Catholic dissenter safely to the Tower of London, where he will be tortured unspeakably before execution. The problems test both the ingenuity and conscience of a decent man in a milieu where to turn one's back is to invite the sudden stab of a knife.

Shardlake's reward may be meager, but readers will find ample dividends in this trio of novels, which deserve the praise heaped on them in England.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.