Review: “Romancing the Duke” (Castles Ever After #1) by Tessa Dare

Romancing the Duke

[I KNOW THE REVIEW IS TOO LONG. SORRY NOT SORRY. I JUST LOVED THIS BOOK A LOT]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one is reading a historical romance, one must have a heroine to root for, a hero to swoon for, know this story may have a happy ending, and that’s the only predictability you’re going to have. Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke not only meets these expectations but exceeds them.

Let me begin by saying that I really did not plan on reading this book. Most of the books I’ve read in 2016 have been sappy romances and I had no intention of adding another to the list so soon. Except I was making my friend watch Mean Girls via Skype (On a Wednesday, wearing pink :P) and sorting my e-books to check if they were working on my new reader and as I read out the first paragraph as a joke, I had this overwhelming urge to find out what happened next. Moments later, with my movie paused and my friend summarily dismissed, I was hopelessly in love with this book.

As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.

Ugly duckling turned swan?
Abducted by handsome highwayman?
Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and…Heh.

Unfortunately, as a now plain, unmarried twenty-six-year-old woman who has never even been kissed, her life seems more akin to a comic tragedy than to the romantic fairytales she once dreamt about as a little girl. Penniless, parentless and now homeless following the sudden and untimely loss of her father to apoplexy (of all things), Izzy scarcely has two shillings to rub together and finds herself in a desperate situation. That is until she receives an unexpected letter informing her that she has been left a bequest by her father’s patron, the late Earl of Lynford. Her inheritance? Gostley Castle in the middle of ‘Nowhere, Northumberland’, once the seat of the Rothbury Dukedom.

When she arrives at her new home, however, where she once expected turrets and ramparts, parapets and parks, Izzy is instead greeted with something far more magnificent and unexpected: The imposing figure of Ransom William Dacre Vane, the eleventh Duke of Rothbury, whose dark beauty stops Izzy dead in her tracks, despite the scar that mars the right side of his face.

There were things in nature that took their beauty from delicate structure and intricate symmetry. Flowers. Seashells. Butterfly wings. And then there were things that were beautiful for their wild power and their refusal to be tamed. Snowcapped mountains. Churning thunderclouds. Shaggy, sharp-toothed lions.
The man silhouetted before her? He belonged, quite solidly, in the latter category.
So did the wolf sitting at his heel.
It couldn’t be a wolf, she told herself. It had to be some sort of dog. Wolves had long been hunted to extinction. The last one in England died ages ago.
But then…she would have thought they’d stopped making men like this, too.

But when Ransom refuses to give up possession of his ancestral home, the two find themselves in an untenable stalemate, neither willing to concede defeat or relinquish a property that means the world to them, despite a troubling abundance of bats and an absence of windows.

“Well,” Izzy ventured to remark, some minutes into the tense silence Lord Archer had left behind, “this is an awkward situation.”
“Awkward?” The duke paced the floor, swinging his arms at his sides. Then he stopped in his tracks and said it again. “Awkward.”
The word rang through the great hall, bouncing off the ceiling vaults.
Izzy just stood there. Awkwardly.
“Adolescence,” he said, “is awkward. Attending a past lover’s wedding is awkward. Making love on horseback is awkward.”
She was in agreement, so far as the first part. She’d have to take his word on it when it came to the second and third.

Ransom quickly becomes determined to figure out how they found themselves in their current predicament and enlists Izzy’s help by employing her as his secretary. Tasked with getting to the bottom of Ransom’s long-neglected mountain of correspondence, Izzy and Ransom form an unlikely partnership and, along with the help of the local vicar’s kind-hearted daughter and a band of merry Moranglians, embark on a mission to discover the truth, all while trying desperately not to fall in love with one another. After all, the course of true love never did run smooth.

The titular character in England’s nationally-recognized and beloved series of stories, The Goodnight Tales, Isolde ‘Izzy’ Ophelia Goodnight (I just love saying the name) is a woman who feels she owes as much to the public as she does to herself. In spite of the popularity of these tales of gallant knights and chivalrous love, however, Izzy and her father have spent the majority of their lives in relative poverty, often relying on bizarre gifts and the support of their eclectic group of fans in order to get by. Consequently, out of necessity Izzy was forced long ago to learn to temper her expectations and quickly adapt to almost any situation, no matter how challenging the circumstances. This tenacity and determination in the face of often unimaginable opposition were one of the (many) things that drew me to Ms Dare’s  protagonist.

I’ve always tried to make the best of what life gave me. When I was a girl, I longed for a kitten. Instead, I got a weasel. Not the pet I wanted but I’ve done my best to love Snowdrop just the same… Since my father died, I’ve been desperate for a place to call home. The humblest cottage would do. Instead, I’ve inherited a haunted, infested castle in Nowhere, Northumberland. Not the home I wanted, but I’m determined to make it a home.

Unfortunately, no amount of resolve will help Izzy conquer her greatest challenge of all: Her preoccupation with the public’s perception and the pressure to meet their expectations. Known more simply as ‘Little Izzy Goodnight’ to the adoring and dedicated fans of the series, Izzy is continually infantilized and feels pressured to subordinate her own desires so as not to shatter the carefully crafted illusion of the innocent child in these cherished stories. With Ransom, however, who has never read The Goodnight Tales and is wholly unfamiliar with the mythos surrounding Izzy’s fictional, childhood counterpart, Izzy is finally granted a freedom previously unknown to her.

Unencumbered by the preconceptions and expectations of others, Izzy is able, for the first time, to explore her true wants and desires without fear of reprisal or tarnishing her father’s legacy. These scenes in which Izzy was able to vocalize what she wanted most were both endearing and immensely empowering. Despite the social mores of the time period in which this novel is set, in Izzy, Ms Dare has crafted a feminist icon who makes the best of any situation and is unafraid to flout conventional wisdom and do what is best for her, regardless of the consequences.

“This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

Now, as much as I love reading about a feisty heroine, for a romance novel to really work for me, it’s the hero’s characterisation that makes or breaks the book. Right from the start, Ransom’s attracted to Izzy, to her honesty and spirit; and – not least – to the feel of her body and the scent of her skin. As we come to know more of him, we discover that Ransom had a loveless childhood (as so many heroes in historical romance seem to do!) and that, as an adult, he made a career of pushing people away and alienating them, so that even when he was in possession of all his physical senses, he was never well-liked or popular – despite his being inordinately handsome and very rich. And now he feels he has nothing to offer. He’s blind, scarred, even more of a grump than he was before, and the last thing he wants is to feel pitied.

Now all of that sounds completely normal, right? We’ve read and loved that story before — the poor penniless heroine who finally has caught a break, almost, but now has to deal with this big, handsome, intimidating man who frequently behaves as if he doesn’t know if he wants to break furniture or ravish her. But Ms. Dare is not satisfied with normal, and she’s really quite brilliant at adding “writer jokes” that translate wonderfully to the reader. I wasn’t able to stop actually laughing out loud as I met the Moranglian society, wondered who the real Izzy Goodnight really is, and gasp, as I realized I’d been Jedi’d in a 19th century England setting.

Romancing The Duke posed one of the best sort of challenges a book blogger can ever hope to encounter while reading and reviewing a book. Ms Dare’s writing is so enchanting, so lovely, and so profoundly funny, that I was faced with the almost impossible task of having to select only a handful of quotations to highlight in this review when in truth I would have loved nothing more than to compose a document made up of nothing but. The sheer abundance of choice was overwhelming, thanks in large part to the author’s ability to provide her readers with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quotable, memorable dialogue and prose. There’s an effervescent wit to the author’s writing that makes her work nothing short of an absolute joy to read.

It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain – the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.

Putting this aside for a moment, perhaps what I found most interesting (and inspiring) about Romancing The Duke was not the wonderful humour but rather the manner in which Ms Dare skillfully incorporates recognizable fairytale tropes throughout the course of the narrative that perfectly paralleled The Goodnight Tales around which Izzy’s life has always centered. There’s something both fanciful and familiar about the narrative arc of Romancing The Duke that allowed me to instantly respond to it. Yet for all the familiarity of Izzy and Ransom’s story, and the nostalgia it can’t help but evoke for those of us familiar with this sort of story from our own childhood, Ms Dare still manages to put a unique twist on what might otherwise have proven a familiar formula for the ‘beauty and the beast’ archetype.

Admittedly, there were a handful of historical anachronisms scattered throughout the text, which were evident in both the character’s dialogue as well as in their thoughts and action, but none so serious that they in any way detracted from my enjoyment of the story. Frankly, strict historical accuracy is not of great importance when it comes to my enjoyment of this particular genre. That said, I do understand that this can be a sticking point for some readers, and thought it bore mentioning.

Doubt not the beauty of this novel’s prose, the quickness of the author’s wit, or the romance and passion that blossoms between the two lead characters. Doubt not that you will be kept awake until 3:00am, desperate to find out what happens next and unable to put down the book until you do so. In short? Doubt not that Romancing The Duke will provide one of the best and most enjoyable reading experiences you’ll have all year. Now, I insist that you begin reading this novel post-haste, lest I be forced to ‘release the ermine’ on you! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Pick up Romancing The Duke today and you soon will. I promise that you won’t regret it!

Review: “The Virgin of the Wind Rose” by Glen Craney

Virgin of the Wind Rose

While investigating the murder of her fiance in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam. Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon’s Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged. The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal’s Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.

Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days.

I liked Craney’s style of writing for the most part. However, I felt he had a tendency to over-dramatize the negative, especially by using unnecessary adjectives. In addition, I had a lot of issues with his portrayal of Jaq. In the beginning, she is portrayed as this pious virgin with a “Caribbean figure” and “luscious sable hair with wild Medusa curls.” If that isn’t sexist enough, she is engaged to marry a missionary who was “impressed enough with her potential for obedience” and voluntarily enrols in a Christian cult a.k.a. “rehab” just because her father-figure says so. I confess, what I know of evangelical Christians and “true believers” of any kind is heavily biased. But, if you choose to pit Muslims and Christians against each other in your story, why is the Christian made to sound rational in his piety and the Muslim a deranged lunatic, when it is understood that their faiths have largely similar origins?

In terms of historical content, it is obvious that Craney spent a great deal of time and effort researching the different events and characters that pop up in the course of the story. However, the descriptions often become long expositions and include a lot of obscure details, making them a difficult read, even though the reader knows they exist to provide context. Even the characters often rely on an archaic vocabulary to make their point, using words like ‘carnaptious’, ‘druthers’ and ‘troglodyte’, making the entire setting seem anachronistic.

Despite being based so firmly in real history, Craney never makes you forget the story’s a work of fiction with his conspiracy theories that border on the implausible. They don’t take anything away from the novel per se, and end up paving a truly epic path for the protagonists to follow. We get treated to secrets guarded by Prince Henry and the Order of the Christ, Queen Isabella’s hunt for them, the Spanish Inquisition’s lesser-known purposes, cryptographic tablets with orders passed on them, End-Time cults… all in all, things definitely worth suspending one’s disbelief for.

The balanced narration ensures that the mystery is exposed at the right pace, switching between the present and the past at the right times, with Craney revealing just enough to pique our curiosity while keeping the really jaw-dropping revelations until the climax. The way the whole thing evolves is rather reminiscent of Dan Brown’s style (or Brad Thor, as some prefer to compare), focused on keeping the mystery alive and prominent until the end, and perhaps even after that.

Overall, The Virgin of the Wind Rose is an enthralling page-turner that will keep you glued to the couch despite its flaws. It’s a largely logical and well-developed mystery and anyone who enjoys reading about globe-trotting treasure hunts will certainly love this book.

P.S. I was provided a copy by the author. The views expressed are honest and personal.

Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

payingguest_dfinalonline

The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.

Review: “The Invention of Fire” (John Gower #2) by Bruce Holsinger

the-invention-of-fire

John Gower, unsuccessful poet, blackmailer, and a reluctant investigator is not an easy man to like. A court official who knew London well and a good friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, he became closely associated with the nobility and even professed an acquaintance with King Richard II. His potential to be a fictional ‘trader of secrets’ in a city of shadows, fear and filth was compelling, and one seized upon with imagination, relish and consummate mastery by Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning scholar of the Middle Ages.

Last year’s stunning debut, A Burnable Book, introduced us to Gower, part-time poet and full-time dealer in the clandestine, operating in a kingdom ruled by a headstrong teenage king and haunted by the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst the barons.  That Gower was really losing his sight by this time – famously describing himself as ‘senex et cecus’ (old and blind) – only adds pathos to these exhilarating, intelligent thrillers which brim with atmosphere, authenticity, danger, and mystery. (Read my review of A Burnable Book here)

For a man who lives metaphorically at least by sifting dirt, this story has a fitting opening. Sixteen bodies are found in a London midden. No one knows the dead men, the way they were killed or who could be responsible – and the authorities, both the City and the Crown, seem reluctant to pursue the matter. At the same time, however, they seem desperate to recapture a man and woman who have escaped from jail in Kent, where Gower’s friend Chaucer is a magistrate. Only one thing is clear. Whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.

Soon we meet Stephen Marsh, the city’s most creative metalworker, who is recruited by the king’s armorer to come to the Tower and develop ever more lethal “handgonnes,” as the emerging weapons were called; they’re desperately needed to defend against the feared invasion. It becomes clear that handguns were used to kill the men, but the identity of the victims and their killers remains a mystery, despite Gower’s determined sleuthing.

Hampered by his ‘creeping blindness’ and challenged by deception and treachery on all sides, Gower battles to unearth the truth in an inquiry that takes him from the city’s labyrinthine slums to the port of Calais and on to the forests of Kent. As Gower strives to discover the source of the new guns and the identity of those who wielded them, he must risk everything to reveal the truth and prevent a more devastating massacre on London’s crowded streets.

London itself plays almost as much a part as do the characters. Real people like Chaucer, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre and various members of the aristocracy mix with fictional ones, to fill half a dozen different plots. Holsinger recreates the sights, sounds, and even the smells and combines them with a complex story of multiple murders, intrigue, pilgrimage, the law of sanctuary, religious hermits – and an amazingly accurate technical description of the development of a new weapon which was to change the face of war.

This is history and mystery in perfect unison, a gripping whodunit set amidst the grinding, grimy reality of everyday life in medieval London and a charismatic, thinking man’s detective driving all the action.

Historical fiction at its best.

 

Review: “The Family” by Mario Puzo and Carol Gino

The Family

Let me begin by saying that I am a die-hard Mario Puzo fan. Unlike a lot of people, I was introduced to his writing through The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of The Godfather, a book so insanely popular it created an entire subgenre in American literature. Culturally speaking, it was one of the most influential film series until a young English boy arrived at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Nevertheless, here I will be talking about Puzo’s last book, The Family, which was completed after his death (July 2, 1999) by his longtime companion, novelist Carol Gino. It is the part adventure saga, past historical romance that Puzo reportedly spent the last 15 years of his life researching. Unfortunately, while the research is excellent, the novel is not.

The story centres on one of history’s most fascinating families, the Borgias. It begins in 1492 as Rodrigo Borgia, utilizing the bribery and political intrigue that were to subsequently mark his reign, becomes Pope Alexander VI. Quickly, Alexander moves to consolidate his family’s power, and thereby its future, by placing his four illegitimate children in positions of authority and privilege. The children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofre, are simultaneously spoiled and corrupted by their father, who is portrayed as a forerunner of the Mafia dons Puzo had previously written about.

Yet neither the Pope nor his children ever realize their full potential as rich historical characters. Although all of them played prominent roles in Italy’s history, none of them rose above cardboard stature in the novel. Their lives, which were dominated by murder, intrigue, war, rape and even incest, are presented in The Family with soap-opera dialogue in scenes that become increasingly repetitious. At no time do the characters come alive; at no point do they take over the novel. In an effort to portray the historical richness of the Renaissance, the book is stuffed with unnecessary details. Time after time, scenes are presented that add nothing to the central characters or the story itself other than to accommodate the appearance of such historical figures as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, da Vinci and the fanatical Florentine monk Savonarola. Regrettably, the novel fails at even this level.

The Family does not read like a Mario Puzo novel, even a lesser one. A work of such historical depth requires strong, interesting dialogue and even stronger characters to deliver it–the very qualities that always raised Puzo’s work to a higher plane. Neither exists here.

So we are left with two questions. How much of this novel did Mario Puzo actually write? How badly did his talent atrophy during the years of illness that preceded his death? In a touching afterword, Carol Gino writes lovingly of her long relationship with Puzo. She also informs us of his longstanding fascination with the Borgias and the years of research he devoted to what he hoped would be his finest novel. On the final page of the book, Gino tells how she came to complete it.

Two weeks before he died, though his heart was failing, Mario was completely lucid. And one day, as I was sitting in his study across from his desk, he reached down and pulled a bunch of pages, handwritten in red felt marker on yellow lined paper, from the bottom drawer of his desk. I thought it was something from Omerta, but it wasn’t. “Read it,” he said, and handed it to me.

And as I read I began to cry. It was the last chapter of the Borgia book.

“Finish it,” he said. “Promise me.”

And so I did.

I feel like a complete bitch saying that Mario Puzo would have been better served had Gino returned those pages to the desk drawer. But yeah.

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.