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Carpe Librum

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Historical Novel Society

Review: Dissolution by CJ Sansom

Dissolution - C.J. Sansom

Set during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, this novel brings this episode in history to life through the character Matthew Shardlake. He is developed throughout the story, creating a multi-faceted, compelling protagonist. Passers by only see Shardlake as a cripple, but the reader sees his pride, insecurities, longing for companionship, and devotion to a cause that he believes is sincere.

Through the example of the Monastery of St. Donatus at Scarnsea, we are shown first hand what it was like for the monks at this time to be at the mercy of the king. First they were ordered to change centuries old rituals to fit the reformist trend, only to eventually lose their entire way of life. Putting it on this personal level and seeing what happens to each of the characters Sansom creates, the reader can vividly imagine this period of history.

The author's depiction of Tudor times is second to none. Daily living and all its struggles are injected into this story without becoming info-dumps or narrations of boring detail. Cromwell makes a couple of brief appearances, and he is realistically written, if not as sympathetically as in Mantel's novels.

I appreciated the author's ability to give each of his characters an active faith that did not truly fit into any category that the government of the time was attempting to create. Shardlake proclaims himself an ardent reformer, until he is struck with the realization that the reforms are more about redistribution of wealth than true worship. Though the setting was a religious house and each person revealed their thoughts on God, the book never overdoes the Christian theme or becomes preachy.

And then there are the murders! I loved this book for the great character development and visualization of Tudor England, but it is also a great mystery. Shardlake is sent to Scarnsea to investigate the murder of his fellow commissioner and discovers a much more tangled web than he expected.

A must read for anyone interested in this period of history.