In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, royal intrigue, mystery, and dangerous politics swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings. Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book is an irresistible historical thriller reminiscent of the classics An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose, and The Crimson Petal and the White.Read more...
In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, royal intrigue, mystery, and dangerous politics swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings. Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book is an irresistible historical thriller reminiscent of the classics 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 artful 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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-01-20
- Reviewer: Staff
MedievalistHolsinger (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror) delivers a first novel whose zest, breadth, and color evoke The Canterbury Tales. In 1385, Geoffrey Chaucer asks fellow poet and dealer in information, John Gower, to find a cryptic manuscript that predicts specifically how the current monarch, Richard II, will be assassinated. Gower discovers that the book has been stolen from Westminster by an unidentified woman, later murdered; dying, she gave it to a common prostitute, who is now hiding it in London. As treasonous texts begin to inflame an already dissatisfied populace, Gower realizes that the king, the book’s possessor, and his friend Chaucer are in danger, and his own son is threatened as well. For the first time, he finds himself at the mercy of other men’s secrets, rather than in control of them. Though the period’s unfamiliar terms and figures can be confusing, the intricate plot, sharp characterizations, and sweeping depiction of medieval England make this a memorable fiction debut. Agent: Helen Heller, Helen Heller Agency (Canada). (Mar.)
Medieval England's most dangerous book
The term “Middle Ages” contains a prejudice: that the era was merely an unremarkable void straddling antiquity and modernity. Recent scholarship has eroded this perception. The era produced Dante, Chaucer and Boccaccio as well as significant leaps in mathematics and even algorithms and cryptography. It was, moreover, a time when the lust for life was great and the powerful had lust aplenty. Bruce Holsinger’s captivating historical novel A Burnable Book is testimony to this more accurate view of a fascinating period.
The scene is London in 1385. Reigning over England is Richard II, later to adorn one of Shakespeare’s plays. The church is divided between Rome and Avignon while England hangs in the balance. A book, the “burnable” one of the title, appears, allegedly written during the reign of William the Conqueror. The book prophesies in historically accurate terms the death of every English king from William to Richard. Thus it falls to the book’s many temporary owners to decipher that prophecy and save, or not save, the reigning monarch.
But the true authorship of the book remains mysterious. Is it Chaucer, soon to write his Canterbury Tales? Is it Lollius, to whom the Roman poet Horace addressed one of his odes? Or is it the son of the novel’s narrator, who chews the fat with Chaucer and does some sleuthing of his own, even slinking into the brothels to ask prostitutes pointed questions? Thus the novel careens from court to academia, from house of God to house of ill repute, with scandalous overlap between the latter two.
The novel’s action proceeds at a steady clip and has the stench of authenticity, detailing everything from methods of torture to the happy custom of throwing refuse into the street. Its prose is erudite and focused, reading more like an academic thriller than a frilly period piece: John Grisham meets Umberto Eco. And Holsinger has clearly ventured to imbue his writing with the earthy English words that Orwell, among others, favored over their highfalutin’ Latinate counterparts. The language is also often bawdy, as befits a novel about bawds.
In his own book about England, Paul Theroux argued that England had been written about perhaps more than any other country, but the England he meant was likely that of Dickens, Austen or Hardy. About medieval England we know almost nil. This clever novel, as contemporary as it is distant, helps illuminate an England consigned for ages to a stagnant darkness.