London, 1543. King Henry VIII is about to marry his sixth wife, Thomas Cromwell’s head has been rotting for some time on a stake atop a wall, and the papists and reformers are still battling it out to be the dominant religious group in England. This is the setting of Revelation, which is the fourth book in C.J. Sansom‘s Shardlake Series.
Matthew Shardlake is no stranger to the law; after all, he is a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn. Being good at his profession, uncommonly honest, and loyal to a fault, he has made his fair share of enemies in the past among not only his colleagues but also the nobility. After several recent near-death encounters with noblemen and the King, Shardlake is only too happy to stick to his practice and stay away from court politics.
In Revelation, the hunchbacked barrister, Shardlake, is given a curious case of a young man who believes himself to have been singled out by Jesus and punished for his sins. Given that the papists are coming back to power, reformers and those with reformist sympathies are careful not to publicly express their religious beliefs lest they be taken away by the authorities. After running through the public square shouting about Jesus and salvation, young Adam Kite is arrested and sent to Bedlam, an insane asylum, against his parents’ wishes. Though Adam’s parents believe him to be quite insane, they also believe that the poor living conditions in the Bedlam, at the hands of the cruel gaolers, would surely kill him. Their appeal for Adam’s release is given to Matthew Shardlake, who wasted no time in visiting the Bedlam and assessing Adam’s condition. However, after seeing the young man’s agitated and confused condition, Shardlake realizes that Adam may in fact be safer in the Bedlam than in the outside world, where he puts himself at risk for his extreme reformist ideals. Instead of getting Adam released, Shardlake arranges for his improved treatment and living accommodations inside the asylum.
Unfortunately, Adam is the least of Shardlake’s problems. At about the same time he took on Adam’s case, one of his closest friends and fellow barrister is brutally murdered. With no leads to follow or clues to go on, Shardlake and his right-hand man, Barak, are at a loss as to who would commit such a heinous crime. Later, they learn from none other than Bishop Cranmer that the death wasn’t a random crime committed by a degenerate but part of an elaborate plot that threatens the monarchy. Shardlake and Barak are told that a few months earlier, a similar murder had taken place, but because of the victim’s status in society, the unfortunate incident was kept quiet. Now that a similar murder had taken place, Bishop Cranmer and his supporters believe that there may be a serial killer on the loose. To bring justice to his friend, Shardlake agrees to help Bishop Cranmer and his supporters catch the murderer and shed light on the mystery.
After an initial investigation, Shardlake and Barak discover that the killer had another victim before the two they were aware of. Although both murders were brutal and cruel, Shardlake notices a kind of pattern and unique order to them, as if the murderer was telling some kind of story. Shardlake inadvertently comes across a Bible at the home of one of the victims and realizes to his horror that the three deaths mirror catastrophes proclaimed by the seven angels in the book of Revelation, which would eventually bring about Apocalypse. With this information, Shardlake quickly realizes that more deaths would follow.
It’s not known what the three victims had in common; they were of different ages and professions and moved in different circles in society, but Shadlake, Barak, and Cranmer’s men must act fast if they hope to find the killer before he finds his next vicitm and carry out his ultimate plan mayhem and destruction to London and the King.
Revelation is a massive book, with 628 pages, but Sansom loses no time in getting into the action. It is fast paced and easy to read, with an intriguing plot that includes court intrigue, mystery, and murder. Moreover, it gives readers a glimpse into 16th century London and the struggles of those working toward religious freedom. The novel also gives some insights into the legal system at the time and the kind of justice dealt to criminals or withheld from those from low classes. Although it becomes a bit predictable after the connection with the catastrophes in the book of Revelation is revealed (at least in terms of knowing that more deaths would follow), it’s still interesting to see how the murderer is going to interpret the scenes in the bible and try to guess the next victim. Other than the main story of the serial killer, Revelation is full of side stories, such as that of Adam Kite and the personal problems of some of the characters, that keep the novel interesting and compelling.
I saw this book at a second-hand books store and was drawn to it because it is a historical fiction and a mystery/crime fiction, which means that it has murder and mystery set in dark and grim ole London. What book could be better to lose yourself in? Later, I discovered that not only is Revelation part of a series but also that it is the fourth book in the series. Fortunately, the books in the series don’t have to be read in chronological order. Some of the events in earlier books were alluded to in Revelation, but other than that, you won’t even know you were reading a book in a series – and a middle book at that. Fortunately, when I returned to the second-hand books store a few weeks later, I found Sovereign, which is the third book in the series, and later, Dissolution, which is the first book. I’ll be reading (and reviewing) those books soon, so stay tuned!
Revelation (2008) – C.J. Sansom
Pan Books; 628 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 3/5