C.J. Sansom’s Alternate History and Mystery Novels

Posted: April 19, 2015 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
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Lamentation(Lamentation,  by C.J. Sansom. Mulholland Books, 2014, 643 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Every now and then I read science fiction novels by authors who also write other types of genre fiction or who write literary fiction, and then search out the authors’ non-sci-fi books. Sometimes that works out well, as when I found Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay after reading his fine alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Other times I regret doing so, as when I started on four literary novels by my favorite science fiction author, Iain M. Banks, couldn’t make it through three of them, and was very sorry I read the fourth: The Wasp Factory, which is very well written, but depressing and horrifying.

Dominion, by C.J. SamsonEarlier this year I read C.J. Samson’s Dominion (2014), an alternate history novel concerning the course of Britain had it sued for peace in 1940, following the disaster in France, rather than continue to fight on alone. It’s tense, gripping, fast paced, tightly plotted, its background (particularly the 1952 London killer fog) vividly described, and its characters complex and well developed. Its only real fault is a shaky premise; but it’s skillfully presented, you’re already thoroughly hooked by the time it surfaces, and if you buy it everything else falls into place. Dominion is a great, thought-provoking read.

So, I opened Lamentation, the latest installment in Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series, with considerable anticipation. It concerns the adventures of Matthew Shardlake, a physically deformed but well off and kindly lawyer, who finds himself involved in court intrigue surrounding the theft of a dangerous manuscript written by the queen.

As I’d expected, Lamentation is well plotted, its characters (especially Shardlake) well developed, and its settings well described. Tudor England sounds like a particularly unpleasant place: Sansom does a good job of describing the grinding misery of the masses, the arrogance and obscene wealth of the “nobles,” and the era’s stifling class divisions and religious fervor (including the torture and burning alive of heretics).

What I didn’t expect was Lamentation‘s slow pace. The descriptive passages at times feel excessive, as do Sansom’s at-length descriptions of domestic interactions and the amount of space devoted to a secondary mystery involving one of Shardlake’s legal clients. The reader expects that minor mystery to eventually tie in with the primary mystery, and it does–but only after several hundred pages. Several times while reading Lamentation I found myself wondering, “when will this thing end?” But end it eventually does, satisfactorily but somewhat anticlimactically.

If you can stand slow-paced mystery novels, you’ll probably enjoy Lamentation. It has virtues aplenty. But if you dislike slow-paced mysteries, you’ll probably do best to avoid Lamentation.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on Free Radicals‘ sequel and on two nonfiction books.

Free Radicals

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