Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

Series: Matthew Shardlake #2Rating: 5/5
Date of Publishing: November 5th 2004Genre: historical fiction
Publisher: Pan MacmillanNumber of Pages / Length: 501 / 18h 53m


It is 1540, and Henry VIII has been on the throne for thirty-one years when Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer renowned as “the sharpest hunchback in the courts of England,” is pressed to help a friend’s young niece who is charged with murder.
        Despite threats of torture and death by the rack, the girl is inexplicably silent. Shardlake is about to lose her case when he is suddenly granted a reprieve – one that will ensnare him again in the dangerous schemes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s feared vicar general. 
        In exchange for two more weeks to investigate the murder, Shardlake accepts Cromwell’s assignment to find a lost cache of Dark Fire, an ancient weapon of mass destruction. Cromwell, out of favor since Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, is relying on Shardlake’s discovery to save his position at court, which is rife with conspiracy.

Disclaimer/Personal Note

This is probably my favourite historical fiction series. As I needed a fantasy break, I decided to go on with my audiobook reread. You can find my review of the first book, Dissolution, here!

Song of the Book

Well, shit, I didn’t really make my own life easy, did I? Picking songs for books can be fun, or a major pain in the ass. Like, what the hell do I pick for a Tudor-era murder mystery with a lawyer MC? As I panickingly browsed my player, I stumbled upon Justice by Rev Theory. At first I wasn’t sure, but reading the lyrics… you know what? It fits quite well, but you have to read the book to see it.


We are three years after the events in Dissolution. Matthew Shardlake leads a simple life, works in his office as a lawyer and seems like he fell out of the grace of Lord Cromwell. Which, he doesn’t really mind much as he had enough of danger. In fact, he contemplates of returning to the countryside soon.

One day, one of his old aquintances seek his help as his niece, Elizabeth Wentworth is charged by the murder of her cousin, Ralph Wentworth, who was the only son of a wealthy merchant. Elizabeth’s parents died earlier and she went to live with his uncle’s family, who didn’t treat her well. The only one who stands beside her is her other uncle, Joseph, who is sure she didn’t have anything to do with the boy’s death. But Matthew’s position is not an easy one as Elizabeth refuses to speak and plead either guily or not guilty, which just strengthens people’s believe that she was the culprit. The case is pretty much lost when a man, Jack Barack steps in to pressure the judge to give another hearing before the final decision. And so Matthew wins another 12 days to solve the mystery, but it comes with a price.

He finds himself once again employed by Cromwell, who tries to save his position and the king’s marriage with Anne Cleve by presenting him a substance called Dark Fire which can be a powerful weapon if they can find out how to produce more. Matthew has exactly 12 days to find the formula and the substance so they could be presented to the king. His investigation, however is paved with blood, death bodies and an intrigue which reaches the highest circles.

In this book we get a plethora of new characters introduced starting with Jack Barak, a servant to Lord Cromwell. He is brash, brave and doesn’t have much filters – he says what he thinks and owns a healthy dose of sarcasm. I always liked him and I think his character works even better in English. His relationship with Matthew is quite rocky, especially at the beginning. Matthew doesn’t approve of Jack’s attitude and unrefined manner while Jack doesn’t trust Matthew and thinks he is just as entitled as gossipy as all the other lawyers. But as they work together, they learn to respect each other and reflect on themselves.

Another important character in this story is the widowed Lady Honor who likes to held dinner parties and entertain herself by inviting guest with different views to listen to their debate. At this time in Henry WIII’s reign, tension doesn’t seem to go down as both catholics and reformants try to overpower the other side. And then there are fractions dividing the reformants and one has to be really careful about their beliefs and words. Lady Honor is a strongwilled woman whose family once been prestigious and her primary goal is to earn the family honour once again. All her decisions and acts are focused on that one goal, which makes her a bit narrow minded and though she is very friendly with Matthew I still can’t like her.

On the other side, there is Elizabeth who refuses to help herself and decides she deserves punishment because God turned away from her. The previously very religious girl loses her faith and decides death is still better than living like this. And her family takes advantage of that. But that doesn’t stop Matthew and Jack to find out the truth. And make powerful enemies along the way.

What I like about this series is that the mystery keeps me at the edge of my seat. I read the books long ago enough that I don’t remember the details anymore (I did remember one major thing though, but that didn’t spoil it for me) so it’s almost like I read it for the first time. C. J. Sansom is definitely a master storyteller who keeps you guessing until everything is revealed. Seeing a plot twist coming halfway through a book can be fun as it keeps you wondering whether you were right (I usually am), but what really thrills me if a book keeps me guessing. And all the while it doesn’t lose my interest. Dark Fire has everything which makes it a masterwork: intrigue, murder mystery, compelling and unconventional characters (Matthew Shardlake is a hunchback for instance, oh and there is a black apothecary, Guy who used to be a monk), and richly detailed world. I’m still amazed how Sansom managed to bring back the 16th century London with all its characteristics and details. It feels like I could walk on the filthy, smelly streets right beside Jack and Matthew, feeling the fear and uncertainty in the air which threatens the fragile peace as the religious wars brew under the surface as well as in the highest ranks of the kingdom.

If you love historical fiction or the Tudor era, or both, I highly recommend this series. You can read each book as a stand alone, though I still recommend reading in order because Matthew Shardlake goes through some great changes regarding his belief and views and that’s fascinating to watch, how he processes things as he grews older (he is 40 in Dark Fire) and as he witnesses the historical events we know from History books.

Available: Amazon, Barnes & NobleAuthor website: https://pages.panmacmillan.com/c-j-sansom/