Sovereign is the third outing for lawyer turned detective Matthew Shardlake. The year is 1541 and the King’s Progress has reached York, a hostile city that does not welcome the arrival of so many southerners. The king hopes his visit will help quell resistance in the north but bad weather and an absent king of Scotland delays the Progress and puts huge strain on a city that hasn’t forgiven Henry for the split from Rome.
In his characteristic style Sansom does not sugarcoat life in the Tudor period. He describes the rotting corpses hung over the gates to the city, the hardships endured by the citizens and the uncertainty of the age. The story revolves around those who believe the king is not the rightful heir to the throne and Shardlake himself is in danger when it seems he’s seen incriminating documents. The claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and suspicion is expertly crafted.
Shardlake is under orders to ensure Broderick, a rebel prisoner, is kept alive ready to be tortured in the Tower once returned to London. This causes a conflict of morals for him, knowing the horrors of the torture chamber. There are also hints that Shardlake could be swayed by the conspirators’ point of view, though he has enough experience and diplomacy not to allow himself to become incriminated.
He nonetheless finds himself in an increasingly difficult situation as he discovers secrets of the Queen alongside his assistant Barak and love interest Tamasin. This knowledge sees Shardlake interrogated under false accusations and the sheer horror of torture is shown through the descent into madness and suicide of a number of characters awaiting interrogation.
An atmospheric novel that balances a number of interlinked mysteries, the climax of which is a real page turner. The sights, smells, and struggles of life in the sixteenth century are realistically evoked and the historic note at the end explains any variance from reality.