A Burnable Book: A Novel, by Bruce Holsinger
A Burnable Book opens with the murder “under a clouded moon” of an unknown girl by a man who repeatedly demands “Doovay leebro?” (”Where is the book?”) We are then immediately plunged into the first-person narrative of John Gower, a man with money and connections, and his meeting with his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks his assistance in locating a mysterious missing book.
The year is 1385. The king is the 17-year-old Richard II. The setting into which we, the readers, are immersed are the interlocking medieval cities of London, Westminster and Southwark. The crux of the intrigue is that missing book, which appears to prophesize the death of King Richard II. Or could it be that the book’s intent is to incite Richard’s assassination?
A Burnable Book is much too large to fit into the genre of “Historical Mystery.” It is most decidedly not a “cozy.” The violence seems personal and real and, while not indiscriminate, happens in some quantity.
Unlike much historical fiction, no suspension of belief is needed. No cheerful monarch sends out a private, personal sleuth or even sneaks out of the palace themselves to solve a murder. Instead, we have two historical protagonists, John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, who could, indeed, have been involved in political intrigue.
Gower was, as history tells us, a poet, a man of wealth, a denizen of London and, perhaps, a court official. Chaucer, also a poet, had a career as a diplomat. In tone, the book is actually less a mystery than an intelligent and historically-detailed political thriller. And thrilling it is, building to an exciting climax of ever-changing alliances, multiple layers of intrigues, double-crosses and then triple-crosses.
Equally as interesting as the plot twists are the swirling secondary characters. They include members of the upper classes of society – Richard II’s Lord Chancellor, Michael de la Pole; Richard’s scheming friend Robert de Vere, the 9th Earl of Oxford; Richard’s glowering uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; and Gaunt’s mistress, a very cool and conniving Katherine Swynford; with the great condottiere Sir John Hawkwood adding a spicy level of international intrigue from his Italian headquarters.
Even more compelling than the characters out the history books, however, are the imaginary denizens of Southwark, the whores (“maudlyns”), bawds and apprentices who spring vividly to individual life. Their hopes and dreams and their courage, as well as the casual daily ugliness and cruelty of their lives, are presented in heartbreaking detail.
The author, Bruce Holsinger, is a medieval scholar with an in-depth understanding of the time period. The author’s scholarly credentials, however, lie lightly on the reader. His writing is crisp and, while some archaic words are used to give “flavor” to the pages, the terms are introduced gradually and seamlessly. A helpful “Cast of Characters” and a map of London are included as introductory materials.
Holsinger has crafted an interesting protagonist and a compelling world. He has used his obviously extensive knowledge to bring medieval London to life and to immerse us, the readers, in all its myriad sounds, smells, colors and textures.
A Burnable Book is a wonderful read and John Gower an appealing narrator. Here’s hoping that the author continues and a second “John Gower” book is in our future!