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 religion in England. This is the setting for Revelation, the 4th book in C.J. Sansom‘s Shardlake Series.
Matthew Shardlake is no stranger to the law – he is, after all, a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn. Being good at his profession, uncommonly honest, and loyal to a fault, he has also made his fair share of enemies in the past, not only among his colleagues, but also among the nobility. After some recent near-death encounters with noblemen and the King himself, 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 express their religious beliefs in public lest they be taken away by the authorities. After running through the public square shouting about Jesus and salvation, young Adam Kite was 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 was 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 his release, Shardlake works toward better treatment and living accommodations for Adam inside the asylum.
Unfortunately, Adam isn’t the worst 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. They later learn from none other than Bishop Cranmer himself that the death isn’t just a random crime committed by a degenerate, but part of an elaborate plot, which 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 another, similar murder had taken place, Bishop Cranmer and his supporters believe that there may be a serial killer out 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 some initial investigation, Shardlake and Barak discover that the killer had another victim, one earlier than the two they were already aware of. Though each murder committed was brutal and cruel, Shardlake notices a kind of pattern, a unique order to them, as if the murderer were telling some kind of story. Shardlake inadvertently comes across a Bible at the home of one of the victims, and to his horror, realizes that the three deaths mirror catastrophes proclaimed by the seven angels in the book of Revelation, which would eventually bring about Apocalypse. And with that, Shardlake quickly realizes that there will be more deaths to follow.
It’s not known what the three victims had in common; they were of different ages, different 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 to carry out his ultimate plan of bringing mayhem and destruction to London and to the King.
Revelation is a massive book – 628 pages, to be exact, but Sansom loses no time in getting into the action. It’s fast paced and easy to read, with an intriguing plot that includes Court intrigue, mystery, and murder. It’ gives readers a glimpse into 16th century London and the struggles of those working toward religious freedom. Shardlake being a lawyer, the novel also gives some insight on the legal system at the time, and the kind of justice dealt to criminals or withheld from those from lower classes. Though it becomes a bit predictable after the tie-in with the catastrophes in the book of Revelation is revealed, at least in terms of knowing that there are more deaths to come, it’s still interesting to see how the murderer is going to interpret the scenes in the bible, as well as to try to guess who the next victim will be. Other than the main story of the serial killer, Revelation is full of side stories, like Adam Kite, and the personal problems of some of the characters, that keep the novel interesting and compelling.
I saw this book at a used books store, and was drawn to it because not only was it historical fiction, it’s also a mystery /crime fiction, which means that it has murder and mystery set in dark and grim, old London; seriously, what book could be better to lose yourself in? I later found out that not only was Revelation part of a series, but that it was already the 4th 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 think you were reading a book in a series – and a middle book at that. Fortunately, when I returned to the used books store a few weeks later, I found Sovereign, the 3rd book in the series, and later, Dissolution, the very 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