Dark Fire by CJ Sansom is part of a series set in Tudor England, featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake. This was a turbulant and dangerous period, when religion was identified with the state and thus following the ‘wrong’ religion was close to treason.

Most of the group enjoyed this book, finding the background of a country in turmoil well-depicted and realistic, with vivid descriptions. Many were struck by the sense that in this time both hell and purgatory were considered real places, with real consequences for failures of belief or behaviour. The history and politics of the time seemed to be accurate and the ten-day deadline for both of Shardlake’s investigations drove the book on at a brisk pace.

Generally the characters were found to be realistic: Shardlake is a sympathetic lead, honest, intelligent, agreeable and conscientious, coping with a disability which exposes him to superstitious prejudice. He is accompanied by Jack Barak, a robustly disrespectful young man employed by Thomas Cromwell. Barak grew up in poverty, was pulled out of education early, ran with street-gangs as a child and now owes absolute loyalty to Cromwell. He also seeks assistance from his friend Guy of Malton, who is an outsider in English society. Guy is an alchemist, a former monk, originally Spanish and from a Moorish family which converted to Christianity. Barak finds Guy highly suspicious.

Readers found the idea of using Greek Fire, the Dark Fire of the title, intriguing and were interested in finding how the author would work around the actual non-discovery. The use of Greek Fire as a weapon is recognised as a moral dilemma for Shardlake; his allies have opposing views, with Guy horrified by the potential for destruction while Barak views it from Cromwell’s perspective, as a necessity.

One reader found the book too male-dominated; while that is a reflection of the time and society, we generally expect a more nuanced portrayal from a contemporary novel. There are women in the story; the most prominent is kindly inclined towards Shardlake but is uncompromising in her ambitions for her family. Her affections last as long as Cromwell’s patronage.

This reader also found it a little superficial, adding nothing new to their knowledge of the time, with a choppy style. It is certainly a very busy book, with Shardlake and Barak repeatedly travelling throughout London in pursuit of the truth. Most found this book to be a page-turner, thought-provoking with themes of immigration, social mobility, corruption, poverty, misogyny, slum landlords and class distinction.

The majority thought it was well-written and briskly paced, not particularly profound but an agreeable read. The group rated this book 7.5/10.

This book is available for borrowing from Libraries in Pembrokeshire; a small reservation fee may be required if it is not at your branch, or if all copies are out on loan.