Henry VIII is now Head of the Church of England and Reformation is in full swing. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who is particularly liked by Thomas Cromwell and works with him on various cases. When a monastery inspector is found decapitated in the monastery’s kitchen, Cromwell dispatches Shardlake to find the murderer and to get the Abbot to agree to close the monastery down. Though a hunchback, Shardlake shoulders the extreme responsibility and makes his way out of London with his young assistant.
This book was recommended to me by a local bookshop in Grantown-on-Spey and it was a fantastic recommendation. Though it takes place in the 16th century, the reader is almost instantly thrown back into that time, the scenes and characters painted so vividly you feel completely jarred out of reality. When reading a historical fiction book, you want every little detail to feel tangible, and Sansom does that with great aplomb. The concept of a hunchback lawyer solving crimes in the 1500s seemed a bit far out there to me, but I am glad that I gave the book a read.
Shardlake himself is a very likeable, sympathetic character. Self-deprecating because of his hunchback, you never are asked to pity him but you find yourself wanting to give him a hug so that he knows he is loved. He values his intelligence and knows his strengths, but especially because of his place in time sees his physical deformity as an impediment to the possibility of real love. It’s especially this little detail that makes you feel attached to Shardlake and makes him incredibly alive on the page. He is a character of his time, and yet his growing understanding of what really fuels the dissolution of the monasteries and other acts of the Reformation under Cromwell makes his thinking feel a bit more modern, allowing the current reader to connect with him yet again.
Even the “side” acts on the page are well-drawn and fleshed out, and the who-done-it of the story has a great number of twists and turns. I devoured this big book over a few days (in front of a roaring wood fire in the Highlands) and could not put it down. Every time I picked it up I stepped back into the pages so completely that to stop reading it, to stop being in that Sussex monastery with Shardlake, almost felt wrong. C.J. Sansom has done something incredible with Dissolution.
I write this review from an ARC I won from Tor last fall just before the release of the book (though it didn’t come until after the book was published, so I felt no rush to review). I know that from an ARC I can’t critique the random grammatical mistakes or even some of the phrasing, but I highly doubt any major things were changed in the last draft, so I feel that this review should reflect the finished copy.
The Faerie Ring centers on Tara, known to all as Tiki, an orphan in Victorian London who has made her home with four other lost children picking pockets to fill their mouths. When escaping a drunk Scot who caught her picking his pocket, Tiki jumps on the back of a cab and fall asleep, only waking when the carriage stops and she discovers that she is outside a large mansion. The smells of the open kitchen door beckon her inside where she manages to steal some bread and cheese while a feast is being prepared, but not before being caught and making a run through the lush halls of the mansion to hide. While hiding, Tiki discovers a beautiful ring that entrances her so much that she steals it without knowing that not only has she stolen from Queen Victoria herself, but she has also set off a centuries-old feud between the faeries and the Royals.
Tiki (whose name so closely resembles the author’s that it makes it a bit distracting) has several interesting qualities, one of them being that she constantly dresses as a boy to pick pockets. I suppose because a lone boy would be bothered far less than a lone girl it makes sense for a girl struggling in 1870’s London, but I cannot remember Hamilton ever explaining that point. Tiki grew up in a middle class home where she learned proper etiquette and developed a thirst for reading and learning, but her parents’ death forced her out on the streets to fend for herself. She guards her adopted family of orphans with great care and trusts no one outside of it. With all of that, she also bears a remarkable Celtic birthmark on her wrist. All of these qualities should combine to make Tiki a much more interesting protagonist than what she actually turns out to be.
Perhaps the biggest fault here is not the story itself but the lack of depth. As I was reading the book, I was constantly reminded of the sorts of stories children make up (myself included) or beginning authors might scribble down in their teens before they come up with something far more interesting. Motivations felt more like plot devices, right down to Tiki’s decision to steal the ring in the first place. Any mention of the poor ill four-year-old Clara felt more of a ploy to garner sympathy for the kids than to actually add depth to Tiki’s personality. Things happened because they needed to in order to keep the story going, but most of the transitions lacked explanation and reason (SPOILER For instance when Prince Leo learns the ring is still in Buckingham Palace, why did he not just have staff turn the place upside down looking for it, or look for it himself?)
While the plot definitely improves once the action gets going, Hamilton does not know how to navigate her desire to have a fairy store entwined with real Victorian lives. Instead of weaving together the sad orphans’ tales and the stolen ring storyline, it jumped as if Hamilton had no idea how to make them connect. So instead, a few days passed. Or another section started, with little adjustment. It is jarring and does seem to improve, or I also could have just stopped noticing it as much as I went through.
The book also abounded in British cliches; Hamilton even used the phrase “A thousand times yes.” I thought I was going to gag, especially due to its context.
All in all, unless you have a penchant for YA fae fantasy, I would give this one a miss. Hamilton researched her historical setting, but she forgot to listen to her characters when she was writing the book.
Special Note: There will of course be a sequel because this was a YA fantasy book, and the first two chapters are available on Hamilton’s website. I decided to read them to see if her writing had improved. No. She opens the book with “The killer walked boldly down the corridor of the Summer Court.” I heard Carol screaming in my head “Show, don’t tell! No -ly words allowed!”