C. J. Sansom’s continued success of the Shardlake series is undeniably linked to his flawless ability to describe medieval London and its streets, smells and atmosphere in great detail, through the eyes of non-conformist Serjant Shardlake. Heartstone is the fifth novel in the series in which the good-natured hunchback lawyer is not so much religiously vocal, but more openly critical about King Henry VIII’s failing war in France.
Shardlake has been advised not to cross King Henry VIII’s path, but Queen Katherine Parr has come to appreciate Shardlake’s commitment to justice and asks him to investigate the wardship of Hugh Curteys. Arch enemy Richard Rich attempts to sabotage Shardlake’s case and would prefer to see him dangling at the end of a rope (or drowning on the Mary Rose) than see him succeeding in his quest.
When Hugh’s tutor is found dead in suspicious circumstances, Shardlake travels to the south of England and gives us a wonderfully detailed account of long distance travelling on horseback in the 16th century. Sansom vividly describes the masses of foot soldiers who are heading west to take part in the expected naval battle at Portsmouth harbour, and the destruction of villages and families they leave behind.
Shardlake also travels to Rolfswood, where he unravels the mystery of Bedlam resident Ellen Fettiplace. To me, Fettiplace’s lukewarm response to Shardlake’s findings was disappointingly predictable. Her future is still uncertain and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of her.
Heartstone’s most impressive scenes describe the build-up to the battle of Portsmouth, and the sinking of the Mary Rose, on which Shardlake finds himself literally bound to confront the French fleet. Readers also get an insight into Katherine Parr’s relationship with the heavily ulcerated Henry VIII and the widespread fraud in the Court of Wards, where wardships of orphaned children are being bought for personal gain.
One of the most memorable scenes is the introduction of the highly intelligent child Elisabeth, Katherine Parr’s step daughter. Shardlake expresses an admiration for her which lingers throughout the book and suggest that yet another Shardlake instalment is on its way, with Elisabeth rising to the throne. Wishful thinking, perhaps?