Review: ‘A Burnable Book’ by Bruce Holsinger

A Burnable Book Cover

London, 1385.

A book and a cloth prophesy regicide.

Two aspiring poets hide their dark secrets.

Two ambitious men plot revenge.

Two fallen women aspire for a better life.

In his debut novel, medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger creates an intricate plot set in 14th century England during the reign of Richard II, a king I knew existed only because Shakespeare had written a play about him. The story opens with Agnes, a maudlyn (prostitute) receiving a book from a girl she had just met outside the city walls. Minutes later, the girl is brutally murdered, leaving Agnes wondering what is so special about this book that someone was prepared to kill for it.

Our hero, John Gower, a prudish middle-aged poet and ‘trader in information’ (such a nice term for blackmailer), hears about this book from his close friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain why. As John starts searching for the book, he finds out that he is not the only one looking for it and the prophecy in the book could implicate some of England’s most important noblemen in a plot to kill the king.

As the story moves from London to Southwark to Oxford to Florence and back, the history of this ‘burnable’ book is slowly unraveled. It crosses a continent and a sea with a young woman who is both warrior and lady; is passed into the hands of a lowly maudlyn; stolen by a transgender prostitute; sold to a high-ranking lawyer; and passed off to an earl. In the meantime, John Gower is using up the last of his favour among friends. His estranged son turns up out of nowhere and appears to be connected to the whole mystery. Gower’s search takes him from the palaces of the nobility to the seedy back alleys teeming with prostitutes and butchers. Seemingly insignificant details reveal themselves as key clues to finding the answers John Gower seeks: What are the origins of this book? Where is it? And why does Chaucer want this treasonous work for himself? In A Burnable Book, nothing is as it seems–not friendships, not family relationships, not political alliances.

Holsinger presents a distant and disdainful John of Gaunt, a cold and calculating Katherine Swynford and a narcissistic Chaucer. John Gower himself is full of grief and deep regrets, like a grizzled detective doing a job he’s too good at but tired of. There is a huge roll of characters, with an index provided at the beginning of the book (GoT style). But my favourites were Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both“, based on an actual transgender prostitute from those times, and all his/her friends from Gropecunt Lane (yes, that’s where the hookers lived).

Holsinger’s London is gritty, dirty, violent, and hostile. Descriptions are vivid, not always palatable, but utterly convincing. It was a time when activities matched their street names, and Holsinger spares us no blushes. This is tremendous writing.  Most of these observations are delivered in the third person, as we are taken around with the cast of characters, whereas the protagonist, Gower, is delivered to us in the first person.  I am a fan of the first person narrative, but in A Burnable Book it jarred for me, as the narrative switched viewpoints between scenes in the book.

A Burnable Book is hugely plotted. There are a lot of twists and turns, and sub-plots seem to cascade throughout the story. It shows 14th-century England as a society deeply rooted in a class based hierarchy in which moving above one’s station requires luck, connections, and money. I had fun with this book, and was sad when the adventure ended. If you’re up for reading an intriguing and gritty historical thriller, read A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger.

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One thought on “Review: ‘A Burnable Book’ by Bruce Holsinger

  1. Pingback: Review: “The Invention of Fire” (John Gower #2) by Bruce Holsinger | At Least I'm Well-Read

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