London, 1385. A supposedly ancient book of poems prophesying the death of England’s newly crowned king, Richard II, is making the rounds. While the book and its seditious poems become the talk among English high society, John Gower, an English poet and bureaucrat, learns about the book from his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, in a shadowy bar when the two meet to talk. Chaucer, in a spot of trouble and looking for help from Gower, asks his friend to find the book, saying it will cause him grief if it falls into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, Chaucer fails to mention the most pertinent information, leaving Gower to find out it’s a “burnable book” --- a treasonous work that can get one killed for having just seen it, let alone asking around as to its existence.
Gower knows London inside out with contacts everywhere, and he’s not afraid to pay for the information he needs. Knowing little about the book he’s after puts him in the dark, a place he isn’t used to being. When he starts asking about the work, he runs into a wall but keeps at it and becomes increasingly curious and worried about its contents. What he finds are more questions, none of which can be safely answered.
"The best part of A BURNABLE BOOK, apart from the characters, is the mystery itself. First, it’s a mystery about a book --- what reader doesn’t love that? Second, thanks to the cast of characters, the book passes through so many hands that even the people who know the truth about the book aren’t aware of what’s happening."
While the book is discussed secretly in dark palace halls, in the London slums it falls into the hands of several unknowing individuals who don’t understand how valuable the book is but know that people will commit murder to get their hands on it. As information about the book makes an unruly circle back to Gower, he finds himself questioning his love for his family, his circle of influence, and why he’s even looking for the book in the first place. If Gower is successful, will it stop the death of King Richard II? Are the prophecies true or just rambling notes between lovers?
Bruce Holsinger is a first-time novelist but is no stranger to writing or the medieval world in general. He’s a medieval scholar, and you can tell by the details. He doesn’t overwhelm the reader and does an excellent job bringing the London of 1385 to life. In a few instances, the descriptions are so real you wish you could unread them, especially when the story moves to the slums and the living conditions. Then again, it’s also what brings the story alive and makes it so good.
I have to talk about the characters because it’s an amazing array of individuals. Yes, Geoffrey Chaucer is here, but he’s not the entire book, and I like that he’s a minor character in some ways. John Gower, on the other hand, is a nice mix of courage, self-assurance, self-doubt and loathing. I like that he questions himself, his life and his family. This whole episode with the book changes everything for him and makes him question what he’s doing in London and the life he’s built. By far the most fascinating characters, though, are the women of the London slums. They are some of the most interesting individuals here, and certainly among the most devious when it comes to hiding the book and finding it again. The descriptions of slum life take the novel from being a nice bit of historical fiction to very accurate descriptions of historical life.
The best part of A BURNABLE BOOK, apart from the characters, is the mystery itself. First, it’s a mystery about a book --- what reader doesn’t love that? Second, thanks to the cast of characters, the book passes through so many hands that even the people who know the truth about the book aren’t aware of what’s happening. In the interest of preserving the mystery, I’ll stop there. But think tangled web, and you have a great sketch of this book.
If I’d been asked to write a three-word review of A BURNABLE BOOK, it would have read as such: Read this book. And that’s my conclusion: Read this book!
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on February 21, 2014