Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

This is the second novel by C.J. Sansom, also featuring Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer of Tudor London. The time is late May, 1540, and Henry VIII is unhappy with his marriage to Anne of Cleves--wife number 4. He has already fallen in love with 17 year old Katherine Howard, and London is preparing for another shift in permissible religious observance.

Matthew Shardlake is a property lawyer who works at Lincoln's Inn. He was originally an enthusiastic reformer who welcomed the "new religion" and the break with Rome. However, the reality of reform has fallen far short of his hopes, and he has lost his zeal for reform. Somehow, he has gotten himself involved in a murder case, in which a young girl is accused of pushing her cousin down a well. Her uncle does not believe she is guilty, but she refuses to speak. Refusal to plead either "guilty" or "not guilty" means that she will be sentenced to pressing, where the prisoner is placed under a board and rocks are heaped on until she speaks or dies.

Shardlake is surprisingly granted twelve days to convince the girl to speak. It turns out that this is because Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII, needs Shardlake to take on a mission for him. Cromwell is a real historical figure, who came to power while Henry was trying to divorce his first wife to marry Ann Boleyn. He was instrumental in arranging the king's marriage to the Protestant Anne of Cleves, and his position in 1540 was precarious as a result.

In the novel, someone has re-discovered the secret of "Greek fire," a burning liquid weapon that can even be used on water. They demonstrated it for Cromwell, who then informed the king. King Henry wants to use it to defend England from attacks by France and Spain. However, the men who demonstrated this weapon have been murdered, and the Greek fire has disappeared. Cromwell needs Shardlake to find the missing substance in time for the planned demonstration for the king. In twelve days.

What Sansom does so well is use this mystery to illumine life in Tudor England--the smells (horrible), the prejudice, the plotting and conspiracy, the hopes for the new religious thought, the status of women, the limited scientific knowledge, the practice of law. All of these play a part in the solving of the mystery, but never over-shadow it. We see the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor, we see the wealth of the monasteries being distributed to those who are already wealthy, we see the plight of the underclass. Shardlake moves from the bear pits and brothels of Southwark to the halls of Westminster and Whitehall as he tries to find the missing Greek fire while also saving his client from being pressed to death.

Closely plotted, the novel takes place over the twelve days ending on June 10, 1540--which is the day that Thomas Cromwell was arrested (for real!) and taken to the Tower of London on trumped up charges of treason. Sansom uses the deadline well, as leads proliferate and then dry up, and some things take longer than they should because travel and communication in 16th century London are much slower than we are used to. No one can pick up a phone and dial 999 for emergency assistance, or call a missing witness on their cell phone. Even travelling from Southwark to Lincoln's Inn requires walking to the river, finding a ferry, crossing the river, then retrieving the horse from the stables for the ride across the city. Coupled with Shardlake's physical limitations, this is not a high-speed thriller, but one where the mystery has to be unravelled deliberately and efficiently.

If there is a drawback to this book, it's that it is unlikely that a man as powerful as Cromwell would rely on a single man to solve the mystery--especially with the stakes as high as they are. Sure, he assigns his assistant Jack Barak to help Shardlake, but it isn't realistic that they are the only two men in London Cromwell would use to investigate.

That quibble aside, this is a much more satisfying read than Sansom's debut, "Dissolution." The writing smoothly blends the historical information into the plot. Many of the characters are atual historic figures, and they are fully integrated into the plot--not just cameo appearances to give some "educational substance" to the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series: "Sovereign."

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

This is a book that I listened to, and that might be the reason this review is going to be so negative. Perhaps if I had read it, I could have sped through some of the more tedious portions and had a different impression of it. As an audio book, however, I was at the mercy of the narrator, and I basically suffered through every damn syllable of a book that would have benefitted from being cut down by at least a third, if not a full half.

The story follows three women through different time periods: Eliza from 1900-1913, Nell from 1975-76, and Cassandra in 2005. The plot concerns the search for Nell's past; she was found sitting alone on a wharf in Australia in 1913, with only a child's suitcase. Inside the case was a book of fairy tales written by Eliza Makepeace. In 1975, Nell travels to England to track down what clues she can about who she was before she ended up in Australia. In the end, it is up to her granddaughter, Cassandra, to solve the mystery.

Roughly the first third of the book establishes Nell's and Cassandra's lives in Brisbane, Australia, and boring lives they are. Nell did not remember anything about her life before Australia, and so she freaks out when her "father" tells her about how he found her and took her home. He waited until she was 21 to tell her, and she gets all whiny and self-righteous about it. She withdraws from her sisters, but refuses to tell them why. She breaks her engagement to the nice boy she was going to marry, and also refuses to tell him why. Then she lives the rest of her life in Brisbane, at some unspecified time marrying and having a daughter--apparently solely for the purpose of having a grand-daughter who can advance the plot.

Nell's adoptive father finally dies in 1975, and only then does he send her the little white suitcase with the book of fairy tales. Because--well, I don't know why. Why would you tell your child she was adopted--and witnessed her extreme response to the news--and then withhold what little evidence there is about her origins? So, eventually--by about the mid-point of the book--Nell goes off to discover her past.

Grand-daughter Cassandra was raised by her grandmother Nell, and was living in the house with her when Nell dies in 2005. It takes a while for Morton to give us her back story, but apparently she was dropped off by her mother (Nell's daughter) for "a couple of weeks" but stayed until she went to college. There are some undated college years, a marriage, a child, and a tragic auto accident, after which Cassandra moved back to Nell's house and lived a boring life. Only once Nell dies and leaves everything to Cassandra does she discover Nell owned a cottage in Cornwall. After quite a lot of boring exposition, Cassandra also goes off to discover Nell's past.

All this set up takes the first third of the book, and really we learn more than we want or need to know about the characters' boring lives in Brisbane. Only when the story reaches England does the plot take off.

But not quite yet! Oh no, there is some more exposition necessary--we get the story of 12 year old Eliza Makepeace and her twin brother Sammy. They are living in poverty in London, some two years after their mother's death. We get some Dickensian cliches about the nasty landlord and his nasty family, some stupid game Eliza and Sammy play called "The Ripper," and Sammy's death. Oh yeah, he was fragile and dependent on Eliza and hardly ever spoke--he was doomed.

Eventually Eliza gets found--her mother, the glamorous Georgiana, was the daughter of wealth in Cornwall, and her brother never stopped looking for her. Eliza gets packed off to Blackhurst Manor (and isn't THAT a terrible name for a house--who's going to be happy in a place called "Blackhurst?") There she finds her creepy uncle is lord of the manor, he has married a cold and nasty woman, and they have a sickly but beautiful daughter named Rose. Rose and Eliza become best friends, and Eliza starts telling stories to Rose. Fairy tales.

The three women's stories start to develop in parallel. Eliza does something, Nan discovers part of what Eliza did, Cassandra finds out a little bit more. Sprinkled through the book, like lumps in mashed potatoes, are the "fairy tales." Leaden and boring on their own, they only become mildly interesting when we find out the real life situation behind the fairy tale. We are also treated to a number of ominous pronouncements about how the cottage is "cursed" and "haunted."

Because a novel this melodramatic has to have a Big Secret--possibly a Big Shameful Secret, and it takes a ridiculously long time for the characters to figure it out. Of course, as readers, we figured it out a long time before the characters do. The Big Secret is that beautiful Rose cannot have children, and so Eliza has one for her. This requires that Eliza sleep with Rose's husband, an artist who illustrates the book of fairy tales. The resulting baby is Nell. But Rose and her husband are tragically killed in a terrible train wreck, so Eliza grabs the child and plans to take her to Australia. Because there is no way she is leaving her baby with the creepy uncle and his nasty wife. Eliza gets the girl on board the ship, but is intercepted by creepy uncle's minion and carried back to Cornwall. She tries to escape and dies while jumping from the carriage.

So little Ivory is left alone on the ship, and manages to hit her head and get amnesia, and is somehow put off the boat in Australia, where the kindly but childless wharfmaster and his wife take her in and name her "Nell."

There are all kinds of trouble with this plot. First of all, in an age of in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, and open adoption--the "Big Secret" is really not at all shocking. There is not any threat that anyone in 1913 is going to find out about it--it's only the readers who are set up to be shocked and horrified. And frankly, we aren't. And not only because it's not shocking, but because the Big Secret is all but telegraphed beforehand.

Creepy Uncle Linus was obsessed with his beautiful red-haired sister, Georgiana. When Eliza comes to Cornwall, she looks exactly like her mother, including the red hair, and creepy Uncle Linus becomes obsessed with her. When Eliza leaves Blackhurst Manor to live in the cottage on the cliff, creepy Uncle Linus becomes obsessed with red-haired Ivory/Nell. Who looks just like Georgiana. While Rose and her husband are both dark haired. Where could that red hair have come from?

Meanwhile, the incredibly clueless Cassandra fails to put the hints together--Nan and Eliza and Georgiana all had red hair; Eliza "went away" for most of a year right around the time the baby was born; the "inexplicable" actions of Eliza taking Rose's baby (why would she do that?)--and instead concludes that Nan is the child of a housemaid who was dismissed for being pregnant out of wedlock. Morton actually drags this non-starter of a plot out for about three chapters before someone actually has to spell it out for the characters.

And what about that "Forgotten Garden" of the title? It's not forgotten at all. In fact, almost everybody knows about it--it's Eliza's garden where she wrote most of her fairy tales. Ivory/Nell visited it as a child. Cassandra finds her way in and restores it. Frances Hodgsen Burnett even visits it--and (surprise!) thinks she might write a book based on it.

Really, this plot is too ridiculous. Nell's father holds clues to her past for 45 years before passing on the suitcase. Then Nell lives the last 30 years of her life never returning to Cornwall--even after raising Cassandra and seeing her off to college, marriage and her own family, Nell never follows through on her plan to move to the cottage--not even visiting it again. Eliza puts her daughter onto a boat to Australia, then leaves for "one last errand," where she gets killed. I just found myself rolling my eyes. Frequently.

Honestly, this book seemed to take the 96 years of Nell's life span to get to the point. Don't waste your time. Grade: C-