Historical Fiction Review; 'Dissolution' by C J Sansom

By | 17:34 Leave a Comment
Historical fiction can really be hit and miss, but this week I'd like to show you a gem in the genre: Dissolution  by CJ Sansom.

The Plot

I picked up Dissolution as a stab in the dark because it covers what I think is one of the most fascinating events in English history - the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century. It was a very turbulent time, with Henry VIII's bullish religious changes following his divorce and break from the pope. In his quest for reformation (and money!) the entire ecclesiastical landscape of the country would be forever transformed under the direction of Lord Cromwell. This is the same vein of history as the considerably more famous Wolf Hall and also has Cromwell as a significant character, but in the case of dissolution the protagonist is actually his commissioner Matthew Shardlake. I admit that I couldn't get into Wolf Hall despite it's recommendations because the writing style jarred with me, so I hoped that Dissolution might keep the same interest with something more approachable. 

The story is set in 1537 and puts the dissolution of the monasteries at the forefront as Henry uses Cromwell to put in place savage new laws, a network of informants and rigged trials. These all to serve to push forwards a reformist version of Christianity that Cromwell values, and - more importantly to the king - will allow Henry VIII to sure up his power as the new 'supreme head of the church' in England and access previously catholic wealth. Cromwell picks out a loyal lawyer and enthusiastic reformist Matthew Shardlake to assist him in investigating the monastery of Scarnsea where one of Cromwell's other commissioners - Robert Singleton - was found decapitated and the alter desecrated. As winter descends around them, Shardlake finds himself as good as trapped in the monastery walls as he tries to uncover a web of murder, corruption and confusion that will force him to question everything he believes in most.

History and The Murder Mystery

Call this a personal preference, but I find when it comes to more 'hardcore' genres that rely a lot of heavy detail and world-building, that they are always the most successful when they splice into another genre that allows the pace to pick up and for the details to sit within a particular context. For example, I love me some sci-fi films, but I find pure 'hardcore' sci fi books very dull because they are so keen to show off their world-building and detail that they often forget to create a readable story. So (controversially!) I cannot stand many sci-fi classics like Dune because this seems to be all it is. However, when that genre is spliced onto a simpler and more animated genre that demands a tight plot - such as a murder mystery - it becomes a different beast. So for example the excellent Altered Carbon  by Richard K Morgan is for me a brilliant sci-fi story because it is so closely tied to a good old fashioned murder mystery: the world-building and intricate details work to a foundation of a quick moving and always relevant plotline and therefore are more effective and allow the reader a better sense of context and urgency than just hard-sci-fi alone. The same absolutely applies to historical fiction, and Dissolution proves this for me. 

Matthew Shardlake by Hazelfo
Dissolution's  plot is effectively a decent old fashioned closed-door murder mystery. By having this as a base, the intricate world-building required of authentic history is allowed to flourish without detracting from the core story and the pacing of the book. By having the history there as the world, and by including historical characters as the protagonists this becomes a unusual and interesting murder-mystery, and by including the murder mystery this becomes a brilliantly engaging piece of historical fiction that does far more than many books that would have the characters endlessly static and standing in dark rooms wittering on about old politics. Each character has an energy of purpose that carries you through.

Like all good murder mysteries Dissolution has great  pacing that knows when to ebb and flow, when to push up the action and when to allow natural paranoia to seep in. Of course it has twists, the body count is satisfying and the plot deals you quite an entertaining 'bloody hell!' reveal that is nicely foreshadowed so that it alarms you without creating incredulity. What's more, the way the murder mystery plot is handled is perfectly in sync with the time period of the setting.

The Characters

Alice Fewterer by Koppori
For me, the way that Dissolution handles the nuances, passions and controversies of the time period is really something special, and it achieves this in large part due to the quality of the characters. The fascinating thing about the sixteenth century, seen most in the dissolution of the monasteries, was how people's belief systems (and even systems of class) were challenged by the onset of the reformation. The Catholic church, which had reigned supreme for hundreds of years, was in one fell swoop cast aside by an English King supported by reformists. The reformists sought to create a purer religion by getting rid of what they saw as superstitions, corruption and laziness in the church, but to do so they were forcing people to turn their backs on traditions -such as purgatory - that they believed could literally save their immortal souls.What's more, reform asked the public to assert things that, in the past, could have had then burned at the stake as heretics. In a class system that previously demanded unfaltering obedience to the pope how could they now reject him? Yet how could they maintain loyalty to this christian power when it was now treason to do so? To make matters worse religious reform was getting more and more mixed in with greed and personal agendas: monasteries were being dissolved for their lands under pretence of religious reform, and recently the queen herself had been beheaded on false charges while Henry was wooing a new wife. It was a dangerous and confusing time and in Dissolution, each character allows us to see the personal impact of these actions by embodying the different opinions and fears of the day.

Take Shardlake, our protagonist, as an example. He is an enthusiastic reformer - perhaps naive in his belief that, by destroying the papacy and all its pomp, England will lead a new purer religion. He is therefore in awe of Cromwell and eager to please. He is ambitious and loyal, and is very much aware of how tenuous a position it is to be in 'favor' with the powerful man. He has witnessed the Queen's execution first hand and his sense of duty is very much tinged with a certain anxiety. He is, however, a kind man who is very aware of his own talents and his own weaknesses - as a hunchback he is in the end always an outsider, who only has his own wits and reputation to rely on. The grim events in the monastery throughout Dissolution will test his character to its core.


In conclusion, Dissolution was a fantastic read for any history fan, as the historical world of the sixteenth century was so well handled, the characters so colourful, and the murder mystery so entertaining. I'm pleased to see that this is also a series of 5 books and counting and I'm sure to be rooting out the sequels in the future. Definitely give this a look.

Interested in what else I'm reading? Got something you'd love to recommend? Then feel free check out my Goodreads account and let me know what book you can't put down today. 

Newer Post Older Post Home