A Burnable Book (John Gower 1) Hardcover – 30 Jan 2014
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‘This is a rich novel…Bruce Holsinger is a leading American scholar of the Middle Ages and his debut novel combines detailed knowledge of the period with an undoubted gift for gripping storytelling’ BBC History magazine
‘This book has almost everything you could want in a historical fiction – rich in period detail and driven by a compulsively engaging and tangled story…The characters are well drawn, the social mores related in unapologetic detail and his multi-layered plot shows a superb storytelling fluency comparable with C.J. Sansom and Nancy Bilyeux.’ Crime Review
‘An enjoyable story of murder and intrigue in 14th-century London’ Sunday Times
‘Holsinger carries the reader to Oxford, Italy and Spain, but the highlight is his description of medieval London with its murky, poverty-stricken streets…enjoyable and intelligent’ Daily Mail
‘His profound knowledge of the 14th century provides a wonderfully convincing backdrop… his London feels like a real place, from St Paul’s churchyard to Southwark’s Gropecunt Lane. Comparisons with C.J. Sansom are inevitable, and justified’ Andrew Taylor, Spectator
‘John Gower is the perfect narrator and amateur sleuth …Holsinger's research, alongside the energetic vulgarity of a language in flux, delivers up a world where even the filth is colorful’ New York Times Book Review
‘A murder, a verse and a whore; the prologue of Bruce Holsinger`s A BURNABLE BOOK draws the reader in and does not let go. A deep understanding of the period combines with sophisticated writing to create a richly imagined world. Excellent historical fiction’ Harry Sidebottom, bestselling author of the WARRIOR OF ROME series
‘A lush bibliomaniac thriller… Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century, lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary’ Ron Charles Washington Post
From the Back Cover
In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings
London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers--including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt's artful mistress, Katherine Swynford--England's young king, Richard II, is in mortal peril. Songs are heard across London--catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the ends 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 conspiracy that reaches from the king's court to London's slums and stews--and potentially implicates Gower's own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that John Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may hold the key to saving the king, and England itself.
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 literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. See all Product description
Top customer reviews
John Gower is a complex central character. He's made his way through life trading on others' weaknesses and secrets, yet has a firm sense of his own moral code. A hero for a corrupt world. When Chaucer embroils him in the search for a dangerous book his own secret looks like unravelling. Gower's travels through Southwark and Gropecunt Lane show how vast (in terms of living standards) yet small (in terms of interaction and traversing heirachal levels) was the gap between poor whores and affluent men.
The book in question has the power to bring down the highest in the land: it's disappeared and therein lies an even greater threat. Gower is on the case.
I had to read this through to the end in one go - don't burn this book, gobble it up!
The protagonist is John Gower, a fourteenth century poet of whom I'd heard (though not read), who has been overshadowed by his friend Chaucer (who also features). As well as a poet, Gower is a "Trader in information." As a literary detective, however, he falls flat - to the extent that it's not really him that solves the mystery.
The book is set in 1385 - and odd choice. This is three years after the Peasants' Revolt and the trial of John Wycliffe for heresy. Both of these events get a passing mention, but surely the turmoil of those years would've made a far better background for a story centred around a conspiracy?
The story also drags in John Hawkwood; another fascinating character from the period, who is wasted, and who could easily have been edited out without any loss of impact.
But my biggest gripe (and I know that I'm a nerd) is that the mysterious book contains thirteen prophesies concerning the deaths of English kings from William the Conqueror to Richard II inclusive. Except that this span encompasses twelve kings, not thirteen. At first, I was congratulating myself for having spotted a plot twist in advance, but it turns out that Mr Holsinger simply miscounted, and neither he nor his editors noticed. This, for me, is an unforgiveable error.
Enter John Gower, part-time poet and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer who has requested Gower's help in tracking down this dangerous tome. What follows is a well paced but complex story with many twists and turns. Equally complex is the vast range of characters, both real-life and fictional, and I was grateful for the list of characters at the front of the novel in order to frequently remind myself who was who. Holsinger is well respected in the area of medieval research, as attested by his back catalogue of 6 non-fiction works in this field. Such expertise is evident in the ease with which he brings alive the sights, sounds and smells of medieval London.
This is an accomplished debut novel reminiscent of the sprawling narratives of Ken Follett and C J Sansom. It is slightly too detailed and convoluted for my liking but I think that Bruce Holsinger's first foray into fiction will win him lots of new fans.
This is another one of those `missing manuscript' plots but while it's a historical crime romp, it's also far more detailed, more rounded, better written and more complicated (in a good way) than is generally the case in this sub-genre.
The publisher's blurb makes the usual comparisons with Sansom's Shardlake series: as someone who has never got on with the cartoon-like action of Shardlake (the man who can barely walk up stairs without groaning is suddenly performing mid-air acrobatics while swinging from bell clappers?) or the well-meaning but oh-so-obvious PC-ness (the trio of a hunchback, the black doctor and the working-class lad made good), I found this book is far more grown-up in tone while still being a fun read.
So if you're looking for a fast-moving, all-action, easy read then this may not suit: Holsinger embeds his story in a complex real world of fourteenth-century political, religious and legal institutions, with real people mixing with fictional characters. There's still the obligatory scene at the end when the entire plot has to be explained to us but I'd had so much fun along the journey that I was willing to forgive this.
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Particularly if it's a ripping 'whodunnit' told from a 1st person...Read more
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