This is my first review of a fictional book, and I’d like to thank the Helen Heller literary agency for recommending this book to me, so here goes.
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (30 Jan 2014)
Medieval Scholar Bruce Holsinger turns his hand to fiction in his first novel; “A Burnable Book”, a story of intrigue, murder and treason in 14th century England. The name taken from the habit of ye olden days of burning treasonous and heretical works of literature.
With 496 pages long the hardback is verging on the larger side of fiction and will keep you entertained for a decent spell, say just over a week to read. The cover is of a scorched burning book (go figure) with a crown smouldering like a hot coal at its centre, watch it, its hot stuff.
In style it is what I would call a pithy bullet point narrative which suits the dark, dangerous and mysterious plot. The story, focuses on real life writer and poet and it appears information broker, John Gower trying to hunt down a mysterious book, the words of which not only spell death to the owner, but perhaps the King, for his friend the great writer Geoffrey Chaucer. The famous author or the Canterbury Tales is essentially blackmailing him Gower, who seems to be a man to whom everyone owes a favour and who now gets a taste of his own medicine but is blind to the fact that when he looks resentfully at Chaucer for forcing him to pay off his debt, he is actually looking at himself through the eyes of the many people he extracts favours from. Through his investigations he becomes a connecter spanning the worlds of the three medieval estates, (anyone named Maud will never look at their name in the same light again) those who prayed, worked and fought. But there is a parallel force at work, Famed Condottieri leader Sir John Hawkwood, commander of the mercenary “White Company”, appears here in the ultra-villain role, pulling strings from far off Italy like a proper Mafiosi godfather.
Holsinger’s expertise in the period lends itself to his subject admirably. His depth of knowledge is there to see on every page as you follow the different characters through the weird and wonderful world of late 14th century London. A world that in this book is a dangerous place on a knife’s edge after the recent Peasant Revolt of 1381.
Essentially the book is real, the line between reality and history blurs almost indecipherably by chapter three, the atmosphere heavy and menacing as Gower and his adversaries search for the shadowy book. The plot in itself is clever as one would expect from a writer like Holsinger, with as many twists as an assassin’s blade, or a winding lane, and it is revealed bit by bit, and I think if I was in Gower’s shoes I would feel stumped now and again, on the other hand I found myself screaming at him now and again what something was, before he himself figured it out.
The story basically follows three paths, the central driving force being Gowars search for the book and the myriads of people he encounters who also have an interest in it. The other focuses on the people who accidentally stumble upon it and have no idea what to do with it, namely three prostitutes one of whom is just down right confusing until you read the authors note at the end. And the third follows the course taken by Hawkwood and Gowars son, basically dealing with the identity of the mysterious victim of the murder that happens at the very beginning.
At the end there is a nice note, helpfully providing history books about the subject and some enlightening maps in the front, I would say if you have read Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller Guide to Medieval England (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), then you will definitely want to read this book. I think watch for more good work from Bruce Holsinger in the future.