Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake Series #2)

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Winter in Madrid and Dominion comes a second riveting sixteenth-century thriller featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake 

In 1540, during the reign of Henry VIII, Shardlake is asked to help a young girl accused of murder. She refuses to speak in her defense even when threatened with torture. But just when the case seems lost, Thomas Cromwell, the king’s feared vicar general, offers Shardlake two more weeks to prove his...

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Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake Series #2)

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Winter in Madrid and Dominion comes a second riveting sixteenth-century thriller featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake 

In 1540, during the reign of Henry VIII, Shardlake is asked to help a young girl accused of murder. She refuses to speak in her defense even when threatened with torture. But just when the case seems lost, Thomas Cromwell, the king’s feared vicar general, offers Shardlake two more weeks to prove his client’s innocence. In exchange, Shardlake must find a lost cache of "Dark Fire," a legendary weapon of mass destruction. What ensues is a page-turning adventure, filled with period detail and history.

"Atmospheric and engaging" (Margaret George), this second book in Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery series delves again into the dark and superstitious world of Cromwell's England introduced in Dissolution.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Matthew Shardlake, the marvelous hunchbacked 16th-century attorney who first appeared in Sansom's Dissolution, returns in this spellbinding Tudor-era tale of murder, conspiracy and betrayal. Shardlake normally handles property cases and the occasional dangerous mission for Lord Thomas Cromwell, the king's high counselor. Now he is engaged to defend a young woman accused of a curious murder, and the case seems hopeless. The girl refuses to speak and, under English law, unless she offers a plea in court she will be slowly crushed to death. Cromwell offers Shardlake a two-week stay of execution if he will agree to undertake a secret mission. Desperate to save the girl's life, Shardlake agrees. Rumors abound of a new and terrifying weapon called Greek Fire, and Cromwell orders Shardlake to find it, along with its secret formula and the two alchemists who possess it. Before Shardlake can even speak to the alchemists, they are brutally murdered, the formula and Greek Fire go missing, and horror and death are unleashed. Fortunately, Shardlake is aided by Jack Barak, a capable rogue working for Cromwell, and his old friend, Guy Malton, a peculiar apothecary. Sansom's vivid portrayal of squalid, stinking, bustling London; the city's wealth and poverty; the brutality and righteousness of religious persecution; and the complexities of English law make this a suspenseful, colorful and compelling tale. Agent, Antony Topping. (Jan. 17) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tudor barrister Matthew Shardlake (Dissolution, 2003) plumbs the mysteries of Byzantine flame-throwing as he fights for the life of an accused murderess. The clever hunchbacked investigator is again dragged into the political machinations of Henry VIII's chief minister Thomas Cromwell when Shardlake's defense of Elizabeth Wentworth, a beautiful 18-year-old accused of murdering her young cousin Ralph, fails to move the judge. Elizabeth's refusal to speak or plea has resulted in her being sentenced to peine forte et dure, death by the slow imposition of rocks on her fragile young body. The horrible fate is postponed by the intervention of Lord Cromwell, who needs Shardlake's investigative skills and needs them now. Cromwell's stock with His Majesty plummeted when the king came face to face with his latest wife, Anne of Cleves, a hefty, un-lovely German protestant princess picked out by Cromwell. Now Cromwell's bitter enemy, the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, is dangling his young niece Catherine Howard before the easily distracted monarch. To regain the king's favor Cromwell has promised a demonstration of Greek Fire, a sort of Eastern Roman napalm, just the ticket to keep the French and Spanish at bay. Alas, the formula for Greek Fire, which had been in the hands of a shady solicitor and his brother, has gone missing, and bodies have started to drop. Cromwell teams the barrister with Jack Barak, a tough, trusted employee with little respect for lawyers. The seemingly ill-matched investigators start picking through all levels of London society, arriving ever just too late after pertinent murders and arson, dogged everywhere by a pair of singularly repulsive assassins. The usual Renaissance muckand stench are aggravated by the worst heat wave anyone can remember. And there is a bit of wistful romance for the lawyer who has no idea how attractive he is, handicap notwithstanding. Rich period detail and solid history underpin the totally imaginary Greek Fire business. Agent: Antony Topping/Greene & Heaton
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143036432
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Series: Matthew Shardlake Series, #2
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 173,779
  • Product dimensions: 5.05 (w) x 7.73 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

C. J. Sansom, the internationally bestselling author of the Matthew Shardlake series and the novels Winter in Madrid and Dominion, earned a Ph.D. in history and was a lawyer before becoming a full-time writer.

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
In his second Matthew Shardlake novel, C. J. Sansom combines historical fiction and the mystery genre to achieve a tour de force of intrigue and suspense. The year is 1540, a time of religious tension, political turmoil, and social strife in England. Henry VIII is showing signs of weakening his support for the religious reforms he and his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, brought to England, and resurgent papists are plotting to bring Cromwell down. To restore his standing with the King, after falling out of favor for engineering Henry VIII’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves, Cromwell must find a mysterious ancient weapon of mass destruction known as “Dark Fire,” the formula for which has been found in a London monastery seized by the King.

This tinderbox atmosphere is the setting into which the renowned hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is plunged. Shardlake has taken on the apparently doomed case of young Elizabeth, the orphaned niece of his friend Joseph. Elizabeth stands charged with killing the son of Joseph’s brother, who had taken the girl in after her parents’ death. Elizabeth will speak to no one, refuses to plead, and will soon be slowly “pressed” to death unless Shardlake can discover the real murderer. Cromwell uses his influence to stay her execution for two weeks, on the condition that Shardlake will help him find “Dark Fire.” Shardlake reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself pressed between Cromwell’s demands, the fate of young Elizabeth, and the evil forces who are trying, with brutal tenacity, to keep him from finding the weapon. It soon becomes clear that not only does Elizabeth’s life hang in the balance, Cromwell’s does too, and Shardlake himself is in grave danger.

But Dark Fire is more than a mystery. In its rendering of the social injustices, political infighting, religious divisions, and racial and class prejudices of Tudor England, the novel brings a tumultuous historical period vividly to life. With only his own moral compass to guide him, Shardlake must navigate these treacherous waters if he is to succeed. And in writing that is at once taut with tension and acutely aware of the large social and political forces bearing down on his protagonist, C. J. Sansom has produced a masterful novel that combines the best elements of suspense and historical fiction.

ABOUT C. J. SANSOM

C. J. Sansom earned a Ph.D. in history and was a lawyer before becoming a full-time writer.

A CONVERSATION WITH C.J. SANSOM

Could you describe the genesis of Dark Fire? What compelled you to write this story?

I had heard of the mysterious ancient weapon, variously known as “Throwing Fire,” “Greek Fire,” and “Dark Fire,” used by the Byzantine armies against the Arabs in the seventh century, the formula for which had been lost but which modern scholars believe was based on petroleum. I thought that having the formula appear in one of the monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII would make a good story. I also wanted to bring back Thomas Cromwell but to show him at a different period, when his power was under threat so that we see a different side to his personality.

How much research did you do for Dark Fire? Does Tudor England have an especially strong hold on your imagination?

Tudor England is a fascinating period to me, especially the reign of Henry VIII with the enormous changes it brought to England. I had already written Dissolution for which my research focused on the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For Dark Fire I had to range more widely, researching Tudor London, the Tudor legal system, and Tudor alchemy and the level of scientific knowledge. However I managed to find books that covered these areas, so as with Dissolution, I spent about two to three months on the research.

What is the main appeal in writing historical fiction? How difficult is it to write about historical figures like Thomas Cromwell in a novel?

If you have a “historical imagination,” if you like to read about past times and imagine what it was like to live then, bringing the period to life in a novel is a very attractive prospect. As for historical figures, especially controversial ones like Thomas Cromwell, I think you have to read the various biographies and other works about them, come to your own conclusion about what they were really like, and set them on the page as characters. That is more restrictive than writing about someone you’ve just created out of thin air, because you have to be true to what is known of their personalities, but rewarding nonetheless.

Did you intend Dark Fire to comment on the politics and increasingly destructive weapons of our own time?

An interesting question. In fact the answer is no, at least not consciously. I had the idea for this book about four years ago, and started working on it at the beginning of 2003. By then the Iraq war, to which I was and remain totally opposed as strategic lunacy, was about to begin, but it wasn’t in prospect when the original idea came to me. Certainly I have tried to portray the dilemmas that a new and destructive technology would bring for members of a society whose technology was primitive—the idea of slaying all one’s enemies as against horror at the destruction that would be caused. But that is more like the dilemma faced by scientists in the Second World War, with the atomic bomb, than anything that is relevant today—after all, the most destructive weapons possible have been in existence since 1945.

On the other hand, the destruction that can be wreaked by religious zealots certain of their cause and prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone to their own vision of revealed truth, is certainly something that is relevant for our time, with the emergence of aggressive fundamentalists in all religions, not least in Christianity where to many “evangelists” today gay marriage is more important than thousands upon thousands of lives wasted in Iraq.

What makes Matthew Shardlake a compelling protagonist and narrator for you?

His mixture of integrity, determination, and vulnerability. He is more vulnerable now that he has lost the religious certainties that he was first starting to question at the opening of Dissolution, but he has a sense of justice and desire for truth that keeps him going for all that part of him would prefer a quiet peaceful life.

Dark Fire is concerned with issues of social justice, class antagonisms, and religious strife. How important are these issues for you personally?

Very important. I’ve touched on that above. England in Henry VIII’s time was in the course of emerging from a feudal to a capitalist society; during the religious revolution of the Reformation the interests of the poor and dispossessed hardly figured either with reformers or traditionalists, at least those in positions of power. Today it seems to me that a theological belief in the effectiveness of barely restrained free markets threatens the present generation with poverty and war, and future generations with fleeing drowned cities in a world consumed by global warming. And now, in the United Kingdom and the United States, those beliefs are bolstered by a sanctimonious religiosity on the part of the rulers. After the re-election of Bush by religious zealots who care everything for their own preoccupations and nothing for the real threats to the world, and who are used and manipulated by those in power, my frame of mind is extremely gloomy. And things are going the same way under Blair in the United Kingdom. He thinks he is a very special man. I think he is a dangerous incompetent, and will be voting next year to get rid of him.

What is the origin and meaning of some of the unusual oaths—“God’s blood,” “God’s death,” “Jesu,”etc.— that frequently appear in the novel?

English “swear words” today are usually sexual words, which seems odd. In Tudor times oaths were concerned with religion. It is only a guess, but I think these terms were originally used to lend emphasis to an argument and then became used more casually as oaths.

Was the practice of Law in Tudor England really as corrupt and arbitrary as it appears in Dark Fire?

In criminal law, yes. The civil law had developed often overelaborate procedures for dealing with disputes between individuals, which were available only to the wealthy, although some lawyers and judges did charitable work. My reading suggests that criminal law was just as arbitrary as it is portrayed in Dark Fire. The penalties, including pressing to death, are accurate and English criminal law had the reputation of being severe in contemporary Europe. It got much more severe under Henry VIII, who also, while using the forms of law in getting what he wanted, leaned heavily on Parliament and the judges. They were frightened of him and Cromwell—with good reason. All the evidence suggests that there was much corruption in the law, though as I have tried to show there were honest lawyers and judges too.

Could you give readers a glimpse of the next Matthew Shardlake novel? Will Matthew and Barak continue to be a team?

The next novel, Sovereign, features the old monster himself—yes, Henry VIII will appear at last. It is set during Henry VIII’s spectacular royal progress from London to York in 1541, when Shardlake and Barak find themselves in unwilling possession of some information that could cause damage to the royal family. Shardlake and Barak will continue as a team—I felt they worked together well in Dark Fire.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • In what ways is Matthew Shardlake an atypical hero in the mystery genre? What are his most appealing qualities? What are his weaknesses?
     
  • Matthew Shardlake takes on two daunting tasks in the novel: to save an innocent girl from an almost certain and gruesomely painful death, and to find “dark fire,” the most destructive weapon in the world at that time. What effects does C. J. Sansom create by having Matthew simultaneously immersed in such different cases?
     
  • In what ways does C. J. Sansom create and sustain suspense and mystery throughout the novel? How does the element of time create added pressure for Matthew and Barak? Were you able to guess who was behind the theft of “dark fire” and the plot to topple Cromwell?
     
  • After discussing the Wentworth case, Lady Honor says: “Poor Matthew. How you take the sufferings of others on yourself” (p. 383). Are we meant to see Matthew as a kind of Christ figure? Whose sufferings does he take on? Why does he feel compelled to do so?
     
  • Near the end of the novel, Matthew asks Guy, “Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy? How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?” (p. 461). Which men of faith have behaved like brutes in the novel? Do you think they behave brutally because, or in spite of, their faith? Does the novel illuminate the religious violence in the world today?
     
  • Lady Honor says that Marchmount “lusts after nobility as a pig lusts after truffles” (p. 280). Which other characters are motivated by class ambition, the desire to achieve a noble rank? How does this desire affect their behavior? How does Lady Honor herself feel about her aristocratic lineage?
     
  • What picture emerges of sixteenth-century English society in Dark Fire? What tensions exist between men and women, upper and lower classes, papists and reformers, citizens and foreigners, during the Tudor period? What are living conditions like in London at this time?
     
  • The motto on the barrel of “dark fire” is Lupus est homo homini: man is wolf to man. In what ways does the novel confirm, refute, or complicate our interpretation of that motto? Do the acts of courage, compassion, and self-sacrifice outweigh the acts of violence, selfishness, and deceit in the book?
     
  • What kind of relationship does Matthew have with Barak? In what ways do they complement each other? Why do they initially dislike and distrust each other? How and why does their relationship change over the course of the novel? In what ways do they educate each other?
     
  • Late in the novel, Matthew asks: “Where is my own faith? Where did it go? How did it slip away?” (p.432). Why has hisfaith in God been shaken? Why is he able to act with such moral integrity in spite of his weakening faith?
     
  • Why does Lady Honor reject Matthew? Is her rejection justified? Do you think a marriage between them would have been a happy one?
     
  • In what ways can Dark Fire be read as a cautionary tale for our own time? What lessons does the novel hold for us?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 32 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 32 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2011

    FICTIONAL SUSPENCE

    Im facinated by the tudor period. This was a special treat to add mystery and suspence to a time period that was filled with so many un-certainties. It was a most enjoyable read

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2007

    Brilliant

    The 2nd book in the Matthew Shardlake novels. This one too is a masterpiece. It is every bit as historicaly accurate and suspense filled as the first, the third is Sovereign.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2005

    Excellent Tudor Whodunnit!

    From start to finish this was a gripping, intense page-turner. I couldn't put it down. The climax at the end was wonderful. This novel also contains some very interesting historical facts about lawyers and alchemists and people in the 16th century that I was unaware of. I love Matthew's viewpoint and also the irreverant and rough Barak, he made me laugh and lightened the sometimes grim tone of the novel. I can't wait for the next one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2015

    Exceptional novel. engaging and full of historical accuracy. L

    Exceptional novel. engaging and full of historical accuracy. Loved it! What a great character Matthew Shardlake is!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    Epsilon

    Followed her.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    Infinity &psi

    She spread her wings happliy, and nuzzled him before flying off. ((DRAGONET DUE DATE- APRIL 26TH))

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2014

    Wonderful read

    Great characterz great storyline keeps you glued to the book dont expect anything about henry tudor though this book its not about him just a historical timeframe

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

    Matthew Shardlake may be in over his head

    Dark Fire really grabs you right from the beginning and doesn't let you go until the last page; it's even better than his first Matthew Shardlake story.

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  • Posted April 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Greek Fire, Devils Breath

    Reminiscent of London by Edward Rutherford with the detail to historical settings and mannerisms yet, this book is much more playful and easier to read through. The characters are so much fun and easy to fall in love with. The story is weaved so brilliantly it had me second guessing what I always thought the end to be, and did not disappoint me when I did reach the end. I had a hard time putting this book down and only wish it would not end. The escape into historical London, with both lovable villains and rough heroes was a fantastic delight. I wasn't entirely sure who I was voting for by the end, but really loved the journey of the tale. I love historical fiction and fantasy and this book was able to capture both, with the setting and people & add a fantastical substance as the main plot, without compromising excitement, enjoyment, and detail. Highly recommended for a brief escape from the current world.

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  • Posted March 31, 2009

    Too boring

    I just couldn't get into this book. I read the first 125 pages or so, but it just didn't draw me in. It seemed like a science fiction novel, given the search for this incredibly destructive material. The characters were believable, but the story just dragged too much.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 26, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Read

    It took a little bit to get into this one then Dissolution. Once I got hooked it ws impossible to put the book done and I read 250 pages in a day and a half.

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    Posted July 11, 2009

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