London, 1385, and 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, becomes 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 about 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 he keeps at it becoming increasingly curious, and worried, about what the book contains. What he finds are more questions — none of which can be safely answered.
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 they 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. If Gower finds the book will it stop the death of King Richard II? Are the prophecies true or just rambling notes between lovers?
Holsinger is a first time novelist but he’s 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 this 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 in this book but he’s not the whole 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 — the women of the London slums. These women are some of the most interesting in the book, and certainly some of the most devious when it comes to hiding the book and finding it again. The descriptions of slum life take this book from being a nice bit of historical fiction to very accurate descriptions of historical life.
The best part of this 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 don’t know 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 this book it would have read — read this book. And that’s my final conclusion — read this book.
A Burnable Book
By Bruce Holsinger