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"You should have seen this house just five years ago, before the king's divorce. Everything ordered and secure. Prayer and devotion, the summer timetable then the winter, unchanging, centuries old. The Benedictines have given me such a life as I could never have had in the world; a ship's chandler's son raised to abbot." He gave a sad flicker of a smile. "It's not just myself I mourn for, Commissioner; it's the tradition, the life. Already these last two years order has started to break down. We all used to have the same beliefs, think the same way, but already the reforms have brought discord, disagreement. And now murder. Dissolution," he whispered. "Dissolution"
It's 1537 and the king's divorce is, of course, Henry VIII's, which brought with it the disestablishment of the Catholic Church in England. Now, Henry and his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, having survived the rebellion led by Robert Aske, are dissolving Church properties and adding their wealth to the royal treasury. But they require legal pretexts for doing so. When a royal commissioner is murdered while looking for such cause in the monastery of Scarnsea, Cromwell sends his fellow reformer Matthew Shardlake, "the sharpest hunchback in the courts of England," to investigate the killing and shut the place down.
The book is kind of a Name of the Rose for the rest of us. The theological and political conflicts at its core are far more accessible to a modern reader and the questions it raises, like those in the paragraph above, still haunt. If the zealous Shardlake finds much of the corruption he expects to find in a Papist institution, he is also given cause to doubt the very Reformationist project he serves.
Shardlake makes for a compelling hero, though his sidekick is annoying and is happily written out of what looks likely to be a series at novel's end. The atmosphere is tense and often quite frightening. The world of a 16th century monastery is convincingly rendered. And both the mystery and the theo-political drama are well-handled. Mr. Sansom seems like a writer to watch.
-C. J. Sansom (Wikipedia)
-READING GROUP GUIDE: Dissolution
-REVIEW: of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom (John Escott, Shotsmag)
-REVIEW: of Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom (Stella Duffy, Guardian)
-REVIEW: of Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom (Joan Smith, Sunday Times of London)
-REVIEW: of Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom (Anna Mundow, Boston Globe)
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