Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake Series #2)

Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake Series #2)

by C. J. Sansom

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101042571
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/27/2005
Series: Matthew Shardlake Series , #2
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 3,960
File size: 1 MB

About 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.

Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

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.



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



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.


  • 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?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake Series #2) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
    Hill_Ravens More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous 11 months ago
    Well written. I am grateful my minds vision does not include a sense of smell. With the lack of technology, it is refreshing to read how investigations and conclusions come together. Looking forward to the next book in the series.
    wyvernfriend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    In this the second book in the series things are complicated, secrets within secrets and not everything being what it seems. There are two stories here, one of a young woman who is accused of killig her nephew, this is the case that Shardlake starts with, he suspects that there are secrets that aren't being told and reasons why the suspect is in near catonia in a jail.Secondly Cromwell wants him to investigate what may be a formula for Greek Fire, using the first case to bribe him into compliance.Interesting with it's description but lacking the fire of the first story. Here's hoping that the third book is better.
    cathyskye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    First Line: I had left my house in Chancery Lane early, to go to the Guildhall to discuss a case in which I was acting for the City Council.Lawyer Matthew Shardlake may have too many irons in the fire. His scribe can't seem to do anything right, and not having the documents he needs when he needs them makes Shardlake grumpy. A friend's young niece has been accused of murder and is facing a death sentence. Even though the young girl refuses to speak, after visiting her in prison,Matthew believes she's innocent. However, before he can mount any sort of defense for her, Henry VIII's vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, postpones the trial in order for Shardlake to track down a cache of and the recipe for "dark fire"-- the liquid weapon of mass destruction dating from the time of the Greeks-- that Cromwell has promised to a very irritable king.With the help of one of Cromwell's trusted servants, Shardlake finds himself traveling all over London tracking down clues-- interviewing alchemists, aristocrats and lawyers alike. Not only that-- he also finds himself trying to avoid the assassins who seem intent on killing everyone who's ever heard of the elusive "dark fire".I read the first book in this series shortly after it was published and for the most part I loved it. The only real quibble I had was that the main character, Matthew Shardlake, whined too much about his hunchback keeping him from scoring with the babe of his choice. Yes, his affliction would be a tough one to bear, especially during that era, but I come from a long line of people who do not believe in whining. (And from their devotion to that rule, I have to believe that it's been in place for a few centuries.) Be that as it may, Shardlake scarcely whines at all in Dark Fire, and I appreciated that.Shardlake is a fully fleshed character. He's a sharp, intelligent lawyer. He can circumnavigate the dangerous circles that do the king's bidding. He's a genuinely caring person-- even though he's blind to those around him at times.The magic starts to happen when a character like Shardlake is put in charge of solving two very complicated puzzles in the fantastically rich and treacherous tapestry of Henry VIII's London. Sansom's character is a lawyer with his normal caseload, but he's also worked for the government during the dissolution of the monasteries and in other projects for the king. Shardlake can ride through the streets of London and see how the city has changed. He can tell us of these changes-- and the reasons for them-- without it sounding like a history lesson. He's merely commenting on the passing scenery. If you're not familiar with Tudor England, you're learning and enjoying; if you are familiar with it, you sigh with satisfaction and sink deeper into the story.Although this is the second book in this series, you don't need to read the first to be able to make sense of everything in Dark Fire. So... if you enjoy rich, meaty, multi-layered historical mysteries with excellent characterization and plotting, by all means make the acquaintance of Matthew Shardlake!
    everfresh1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Second book in the series was not as good as the first one ('Dissolution') - but the same level is difficult to achieve. Sometimes slow. Some plot lines are not convincing. The main historical event around which the plot has been centered in the first book was a dissolution of monasteries under Cromwell-led reformation. This time it's about final days of Thomas Cromwell himself, when he fell out of king's grace and before he was arrested for treason. It's still a good historic thriller made so much better by excellent recreation of 16 century London.
    readafew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Dark Fire is the second book the the Mathew Shardlake series. This book has improved quite a bit over the first Dissolution and I really enjoyed reading it. Sansom has a great way of making you see and feel the time period in which the story is taking place. He also does a great job of twinning his story through real historical events that took place at during the story.Here we find Shardlake asked by a friend, to help represent a niece accused of murdering her cousin. Lord Cromwell steps in and gets Shardlake's client a 12 day reprieve, in exchange for another favor. Once again Shardlake gets into a trouble he would rather have avoided. Someone has found the ancient Greek Fire and Cromwell wants our protagonist to secure it. There are plots and plots afoot and Shardlake needs to separate out the truth from the lies and he doesn't have much time to do it in.
    soliloquies on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Second in the Shardlake series and this one was an improvement on the first - the author really seemed to settle in with the character, which made the writing flow better. The introduction of Jack Barak is a good one, as he's street savvy. Loved the intrigue between Norfolk, Rich and Cromwell and how easy it was for Shardlake to get sucked into the politics of a Tudor court.
    Mireille4m on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    who dunnit met achtergrond England in de 16e eeuw
    eleanor_eader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Dark Fire finds Matthew Shardlake, reformist lawyer, leading a quiet life and glad of it, when he is asked to look into the circumstances regarding a girl¿s murder of her young cousin. As this reveals itself to be a tangle of worrisome proportions, Cromwell once again summons his most useful investigator and commands him to resolve another matter, one upon which their careers and lives hang; the disappearance of the formula for the alchemical wonder `Dark Fire¿. They have just two weeks to apprehend the thieves and find/remix the substance for a promised demonstration in front of King Henry.I was delighted to find that this book has even better pace than the previous one, but retains its wealth of historic detail, and works very well against the backdrop of recorded events. I was also thrilled that `Brother¿ Guy was reintroduced and, better still, Shardlake¿s new sidekick, Barak, brings a great dynamic to this second book. The story is also subtly infused with the presence of evil that Shardlake feels within the city.A most minor complaint: Matthew Shardlake¿s love interest and plot-distraction, Lady Honour, was the weak point of this book, for me. The lawyer¿s loneliness is a large part of his character but this time Sansom overplays his vulnerability a little, and with someone who I found read as completely patronising. I do, however, enjoy the lawyer¿s ongoing self-awareness arc¿ his humility in interrogating himself, breaking down his own attitudes, makes him more a whole person than many I¿ve read in any genre, never mind one that doesn¿t need a lot of character growth to work.
    jimrbrown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I enjoyed this even more than Dissolution, it is a stronger story. The characters are stronger especially Shardlake who I thought was a bit of a wimp in the first book. He has a new sidekick in this story called Jack Barack, who is a bit of a hard nut. I used to work in the City of London, where this book is largely based, and the names of the streets are largely the same in 1540 as now, which I found fascinating. I can't wait to read the third book in the series.
    polarbear123 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Another good edition to the Shardlake series here. The story rattles along at a fair old pace and the two intertwining plots make sure you are never bored. Does this series perhaps run the risk of becoming too formulaic? Perhaps but it is done so well it is like returning to an old friend- you know what you are going to get - I read Sovereign first and that made me want to get the rest - one more to go - I think...
    Marlissa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    After reading the first in the series, I just finished this one (audible version) and have started on the next. So far, "Dark Fire" is by far my favorite of the 3. Two compelling mysteries keep the plot moving. The characters are well-rounded and interesting. Shardlake's genuine grief over the loss of his old gelding will touch any horse-lover. There is also food for thought in themes concerning the morality of making, coveting, and using a potential weapon of mass destruction. A few contrived minor plot points detract a tiny bit, but on the whole this was a thoroughly enjoyable read (or listen).
    carolanne5 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Fiction, read 2010, historical, tudor, crime, London, Shardlake
    fglass on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I just couldn't put this down. C. J. Sansom has authored 4 other books in this series of mysteries, which take place in Tudor England. I've already purchased "Dissolution", another of the 4 books mentioned above. Somehow - it's via the magic of good writing - you are taken in and out of London on a journey following clues to solve two mysteries at once. The characters are fully drawn and they hold you throughout. I wish I could express the joy I had reading this book.
    BCCJillster on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Another really good entry in the Shardlake series. Learned a good tidbits while reading it and am looking forward to the next.
    keywestnan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I liked this book quite a bit ... until the very end when he just had to have a Scooby Doo moment (where the villain inexplicably decides to confess all about the crime and his/her own part in it) AND the good guys took an action that even I could tell was a bad idea. But overall an entertaining read in the Tudor thriller genre in which our hero the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake has to navigate political London in all its uncertainties in the time of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.
    ponsonby on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Like other books in the series (this is the second), it has a compulsively readable quality of plot, strong characterisation and a very good sense of authenticity. The author makes clear what is factual and what he has invented to further the story - something other historical novels could so with!
    firebird013 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Sanson at his powerful best. His novels do not have to be read in order - but if you have not read any then read this after Dissolution.
    mooknits on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Another stonking read from old CJ. This one was not as good at the first book "Dissolution" but still a good read. There was so much going on and so many characters sometimes it was hard to keep up with what was going on. However you feel as though you are right there in the action - I was totally gripped and couldn't put the book down - always a good sign. I have the next one all lined up ready to go. Can't wait !
    sabbiemv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A Christmas present from from a friend a couple of years ago, I was rather sceptical about it. Reading the publisher's blurb, I felt bored, but fixed the widest grin on my face while giving my friend the most upbeat 'thanks!' I could muster. I pretty much decided to read it just to get the pain over and done with - but have become an historical novel convert as a result. I never imagined I could be gripped by a book about a lawyer (an overly sweaty one at that...) who was solving a case in pre-electricity times.I almost cried when I came to the end of the book until I realised that, not only was the author was writing the next installment, but there was a previous Shardlake book to dive straight into.Hurrah for the (well written) historical crime genre!
    cathymoore on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The second in Sansom's Shardlake series sees our hero back in his home city of London trying to defend a young girl accused of the murder of her cousin as well as solve the mystery of Dark Fire, an alchemical substance, for an increasingly desparate Thomas Cromwell. The author paints life in Tudor London beautifully in the minds eye, this is a book you can really immerse yourself in. Shardlake's quiet, methodical and dignified character is wonderfully juxtaposed in this story by his new assistant Jack Barak. Barak is handsome, heroic and blunt to the point of vulgarity and his developing relationship with Shardlake was one of my favourite parts of the book. Once again Sansom perfectly blends fictional characters and storylines with real historic events. Highly recommended.
    LibraryGoddesses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Well researched historical fiction (this is #2 in a series) set in 1540's London. Plots nefarious doings and murder all in line with actual events of Henry VIII's reign.
    tbilli13 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    My second Shardlake as I have decided to read them in order. I enjoyed it as much as the first though for some reason it took me a long time to get through it. I like Matthew Shardlake a lot, though I still think we could burrow a bit deeper into him. Of course it's imagination but the conflicts about reform and beliefs which were so central must have made life very difficult for anyone who thought about things. The plot is credible and the evocation of Tudor life seems to make sense to me
    ilurvebooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Set in the Tudor period C J Sansom can put you under a spell and take you back to Old England absolutely loved this book.
    LARA335 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    History, assured writing, a faulted narrator, and a mystery, what more could you want?