Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Set during post-Reformation England, Revelation fairly drips with atmosphere. It is 1543, and King Henry VIII is in the twilight of his reign. After orchestrating the split of the Church of England from Rome a decade earlier, Henry is returning to more conservative religious views. This leaves two sides of the religious debate, Reformers and Conservatives, once again jockeying for power in England. This makes for a seriously muddy political and religious situation, and the man on the street must measure his words carefully depending on which way the wind is currently blowing. Else, he could easily find himself hanging from a rope for no more than some offhanded remark. This seething mix of religious fervor and paranoia are the perfect setting for Revelation's plot.
In the midst of this political and religious turmoil, we find Mathew Shardlake, a London lawyer who has in his previous exploits garnered more than his fair share of negative attention from those in power. Having sworn never to become involved in state matters again, he, of course, finds himself ensnared in just such a sinister plot at the opening of the novel.
Shardlake's close friend and associate is discovered dead, having been the victim of a most foul and very public murder. Shardlake vows to the victim's widow to track down the killer and with the help of his man, Jack Barak, proceeds to investigate the circumstances of the killing. Unfortunately for Shardlake, his friend is only one victim in a string of murders with religious undertones. Shardlake is drafted into the confidence of Archbishop Cramner and other powerful men with an interest in seeing the case wrapped up as quickly as possible.
The investigation proves to be anything but straightforward, as Shardlake realizes that each murder is imitating the calamities of the seven vials of God's wrath poured out by angels in the Book of Revelation. These vials are some truly Old Testament-style wrath: water turning to blood, the sun scorches the earth, total darkness covers the earth, etc. Sansom does a really clever job of turning his victims into living (or should I say deceased) embodiment of the seven trials. The investigation slowly builds to a climax as Shardlake desperately tries to close in on the killer before he unleashes the final plague upon London, described in Revelation 16:8 as "Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake." It is quite a compelling race to the finish line!
(All this is to say nothing of the several side plots also unfolding in Revelation. Each is skillfully constructed to reveal more about Shardlake himself and the character of the setting.)
Revelation was really an excellent read. It has just the right mix of atmosphere, characterization, and plot. Usually when reading mystery novels, I'm completely clueless as to the identity of the bad guy (maybe that says more about me than the quality of the book though). There were several times during Revelation when I was sure that I had everything figured out. Of course, it turns out that I was off target, but I think it speaks to Sansom's skill at setting up a believably complex plot.
Any lover of a good mystery (or just a good book in general) should certainly treat themselves to Revelation. I certainly look forward to reading more Matthew Shardlake mysteries in the near future!