Not to be treated lightly. Its length hints at its ambitions. Here is a Tudor epic disguised as a historical crime novel ... Sansom has the trick of writing an enthralling narrative. Like Hilary Mantel, he produces densely textured historical novels that absorb their readers in another time. He has a PhD in history and it shows — in a good way. He is scrupulous about distinguishing between fact and fiction. (Typically, the last 60 pages of Tombland consist of a substantial historical note and a bibliography.) He also relishes the language of the time. It’s difficult not to warm to a book in which typical insults are ‘you dozzled spunk-stain’ or ‘you bezzled puttock’ ... Is Tombland unnecessarily long? Probably, but I’m not complaining.
The novel’s murder plot rather slips into the background, as Sansom creates a vivid picture of life in Kett’s camp outside Norwich, as the rebels prepare to take the city; the echoes of a popular leader promising to lead desperate people against self-serving elites are there for readers to interpret as they wish ... Tombland is more of a grand historical epic than a tightly packed whodunnit, like some of the earlier novels; but 800 pages in Shardlake’s company will always fly by.
Sansom leads us around the local countryside with the same scrupulous authority that he describes Fleet Street or the City of Westminster. He’s also particularly good at writing about shit, because the streets and people are frequently covered in it. Sansom’s England smells as authentic as it looks ... If this isn’t a vintage instalment in the series, then, it’s not due to a dearth of scholarship, but to a dearth of mystery. Sansom seems to bore himself with the murder of Edith and so devotes most of the novel to the revolting peasants and their ringleader ... it’s all too predictable what is going to happen to Kett and his fellow insubordinates. Kett’s Rebellion is on Wikipedia, for one thing ... And, oof, the bleakness of Tombland is also hard at times. As well as the longest of the books, this is Sansom’s most depressing, with torture, child abuse, and rape all rife in 1540s Norfolk.