05 April 2014

A Burnable Book

Summary from Goodreads:
In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White.

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low.

Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews--and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate.

Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.

Ok, so last time I fell for a pitch that likened a book to previous books I loved - Dangerous Liaisons, Perfume, and The Crimson Petal and the White - I was let down when I expected some drrty, drrty moral quandaries (The Skull and the Nightingale).  So I was initially hesitant when pitched A Burnable Book...but then I noticed the author was a medieval scholar so at minimum there should be some good historical research.

And there is.  Holsinger spins a fraught, complicated tale that stretches from Italy to England set in a time period where even speculating about the death of the monarch earns one a visit with the headsman.  The plot is set in motion by an unlikely character - a maudlyn (streetwalker) - who witnesses the interrogation and murder of an unknown young woman whose last defiant act is to chant a strange verse.  The verse seems to be connected to the book and fine cloth that are now in the maudlyn's keeping and that many people are looking for.  We jump then to poet John Gower, a poet I'm not terribly familiar with, who is set on the trail of a treasonous book by none other than Geoffrey Chaucer; Gower is a specialist in leveraging information, shall we say, making him uniquely suited to this task.

And so back and forth, from the gutters and stews of Southwark to the court at Windsor, the plot twists and turns, jumping from third person narrative with the maudlyns to first person narration with Gower.  Holsinger has filled the book with real historical characters, including the crafty Katherine Swynford, mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, and a fabulous creation: the "swyving" prostitute Edgar/Eleanor, who changes identities based on client and situation at hand.  The historical details are well-placed throughout the book so it doesn't bog down in exposition, description, or hard-to-decipher language (a hard balance to strike between "historically accurate" and "readability by the general public").

Where Holsinger stumbles, though, is in the sheer number of threads and characters he juggles throughout the book.  The beginning feels a bit jumbled during the many chapters to introduce the principal characters but once that's over the pace picks up.  It read marvellously well until it came time for the "reveal" - unfortunately, the big secret was repeated so often that the section felt too recapitulated when combined with the "letter" sections interleaved throughout the book.  This possibly was due to having too many significant characters and plot ends to tie up, but the basic idea was very good.

A good first effort from Holsinger.  According to Goodreads, A Burnable Book is "John Gower #1" in a series so if that's true I'm interested!

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book for review from the publisher.