Publication Date – 18 October 2018
One of the best historical fiction authors in the world today creates another exceptional piece of literature with Tombland, the epic historical crime fictional book set during the fictionally unexplored events of Kett’s Rebellion.
It is the summer of 1549, and King Henry VIII has been dead for two years. The young Edward VI is on the throne, while his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, rules the country as Lord Protector. However, the country is slowly descending into chaos as a long, unsuccessful war with Scotland, religious conflict, poverty and the corrupt actions of the rich landowners are raising discontent among England’s peasant population.
In the midst of this, Matthew Shardlake is working as a lawyer for the King’s sister, the young Lady Elizabeth. When a distant relative of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is found murdered near Norwich and her husband, John Boleyn, is accused of the crime, the case could have political implications for Elizabeth. Matthew is sent to organise a legal defence of John and to investigate whether or not he committed the crime. Travelling with his assistant Nicholas, Matthew travels to Norwich and begins to examine the details of the case. Meeting up with their old friend Jack Barak, the three friends are convinced of John’s innocence, but malevolent forces intervene to disrupt their defence. As several deaths occur around Norwich, Matthew’s investigation is disrupted by events outside of his control.
A well-organised peasant rebellion erupts around the city, throwing everything into chaos. Led by the charismatic Robert Kett, the rebels march on Norwich and set up a large camp outside the city, filled with thousands of disenfranchised peasants. Captured by the rebels, Matthew and his companions find themselves in the midst of a dangerous and divisive situation. Nicholas’s established views about the superiority of gentlemen sees him imprisoned, while Barak finds much in common with the peasants and their cause. Matthew is forced to make a decision about where his loyalties lie, as Kett wishes him to assist in organising trials for the landowners they have captured. As the rebellion drags on, Matthew finds evidence about the Boleyn murder case in the camp. Following these leads, Matthew soon uncovers a terrible conspiracy that will not only endanger John Boleyn and his lawyers but could affect the fates of every peasant in Kett’s Rebellion.
C. J. Sansom is one of historical fiction’s most highly regarded authors, having written a series of amazing novels in the genre. His most significant body of work is the Matthew Shardlake series, which follows the titular lawyer as he finds himself forced to solve a series of elaborate mysteries during the Tudor period. All the books in this series are extremely impressive, as they all feature clever mysteries and an excellent use of the book’s historical setting. In addition to this series, he has also written a standalone historical thriller, Winter in Madrid, as well as an alternate history novel, Dominion. Tombland is the seventh book in the Matthew Shardlake series and Sansom’s first book since 2014, but considering the sheer amount of detail and the length of the text, this is hardly surprising.
Tombland is another epic novel from Sansom and one that I really enjoyed reading and ranked as one of my top 10 reads for 2018. This book contains an outstanding combination of an intense and complex murder mystery and some amazing historical settings and storylines. All of these elements are extremely amazing by themselves, but together they create one of the best reads of the year. While I really loved this book, potential readers really need to set aside a lot of time to get through Tombland. It has over 800 pages of story, with an additional 50 plus pages of the author’s historical notes and discussions about what events he included. In addition, each page has such a rich amount of detail and plot that I found myself getting through this book at a lot slower pace than I usually would. While it does take a while to get through Tombland, I personally believe it is well worth the effort, as the incredible story within had me hooked from the very first page.
This book has an intricate and powerful investigation angle, as Matthew and his associates attempt to solve a terrible murder that they believe their client has been wrongfully accused of. The mystery part of this book is very well done and features an elaborate and intriguing solution that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. Sansom introduces a significant number of potential suspects, all of whom have substantial motives to kill the victim, designed to throw the reader off the scent of the real solution. I liked how the case continued to expand out as the book went on, as the protagonists not only attempt to solve the original murder but must also investigate several murders committed to cover up the initial acts, as well as several attempts to eliminate John Boleyn. There are several major and surprising twists throughout the investigation, as a number of small clues and characters that at first appear minor turn out to have major implications for the overarching mystery. The solutions to the mysteries at the end of the book reveal a dark and powerful motive that has severe consequences for several of the characters involved. Overall, Tombland contained an outstanding central mystery, which is guaranteed to keep the reader deeply curious and engaged with this fantastic text.
One of the most interesting features of Tombland is the fact that Sansom has set it during Kett’s Rebellion of 1549. This is a somewhat obscure piece of history that many readers might not be familiar with, but it is an incredibly fascinating event of English history. Sansom does a masterful job of portraying the entirety of the rebellion throughout the novel and use it as a fantastic secondary storyline as the protagonists witness the beginning and end of the mystery.
Sansom does an outstanding job covering the events of this rebellion, including the events that led up it and caused the peasants to rise up against the rich landowners. As a result, he expertly examines all the events and conditions that were making the peasants and poor of Norwich, and the rest of England, discontented with the way the country was being run. In order to do this, a number of relevant elements are effortlessly inserted into the story and become key parts of the plot. These elements include discussions about the poorly run war in Scotland contributing to armed deserters on the rebels’ side, talks about the political structure of the country and thoughts about the religious disagreements and schisms that were rife in the country during that period. One of the most fascinating and significant elements that apparently led to the rebellion was the rich landowners’ focus on sheep farming and the creation of large sheep enclosures rather than the growth of traditional crops. Before reading Tombland I would never have thought that sheep farming would have the potential to be a cause of rebellion; however, Sansom is able to explain in some significant detail how sheep farming and enclosures were negatively impacting many poorer individuals in England, and how it became a key part of Kett’s Rebellion.
In addition to covering the causes of the rebellion, Sansom’s narrative grows to cover the entire length of this intriguing event. All sorts of elements of it are explored, and readers get an excellent idea of how the peasants were organised, what their motivations were, what sort of actions they were undertaking, how the government reacted to it and what the overall attitude of the participants was. This was all boundlessly fascinating, and as the reader gets deeper and deeper into the book it becomes harder to put the book down as they become extremely curious about what the overall fate of this group of people was, especially after the reader gets an idea of how big the rebellion was and what sort of victories they were able to obtain. The final results of this rebellion and the long-term impacts it had on the country are really interesting to hear about, and I had an amazing time seeing all the significant events that occurred during this underexamined historical rebellion.
As always, I was immensely impressed with the sheer amount of research that Sansom did and the historical detail that resulted from it. Tombland includes over 50 pages of the author’s notes about the event and the conclusions he drew from his extensive research. While these 50 pages are extremely interesting to read, the revelations about how many of the events the protagonist witnesses actually occurred were astounding, and it sounds like Sansom was able to recreate nearly every significant event of Kett’s Rebellion throughout the course of Tombland, with some necessary dramatic flourishes to create the overall story. It was amazing how many of these events actually occurred, and how many of the secondary characters were actually real-life people who had significant impacts on the outcome of the rebellion. Readers will also be amazed by the historical details that Sansom has included on every page of this book and will have a hard time forgetting the events of 1549 and Kett’s Rebellion.
There are several other elements I enjoyed in this book, including the seamless ways that the investigative storyline combines with the historical background of Kett’s Rebellion. So many characters that are potential witnesses or suspects in the murders that the protagonists are investigating become key figures in the historical events that occurred around Norwich. Suspects and witnesses are also found in the rebel camp, and I liked how the key to crime and the downfall of the rebels were both in the same place. I also enjoyed the examination of 16th century English legal procedures and the depictions of murder trials, and found the scenes featuring them very fascinating. The book’s focus on the divide between the rich and the poor is also a great addition to the story and gets a significant look in throughout the entire book, and it is a discussion that is still relevant to this day.
C. J. Sansom once again hits his literary ball out of the park with Tombland, another five-star historical mystery that has the perfect combination of compelling mystery and intriguing historical elements. With an incredibly addictive overall narrative and a focus on a fascinating historical event that is rarely used in other pieces of historical fiction. One of my favourite reads of 2018, I highly recommend this book, especially for people who love a great mystery.