Author: Bruce Holsinger
Genres [according to Goodreads]:
Fiction > Historical Fiction > Medieval
Mystery > Historical Mystery
European Literature > British Literature
Published/Publisher: February 18th 2014/William Morrow
Format Read In: Hardcover
Summary from Goodreads:
In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like 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 flamboyant 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.
My Review [SPOILERS AHEAD]
“The bishop of London himself says it: this is a burnable book, a work of high treason certain to destroy any man who holds it” – John Gower; A Burnable Book, B. Holsinger
Despite my lack of interest in historical fiction of any sort, the plot of this book really roped me in. A book that foretells the death of a real life king? A mystery that casts a wide range of characters? Intrigue, deals made across the seas, deceit? Mystery can spice up any story for me, and this novel was no exceptions! I loved watching just how many characters were tied into the story in unique ways, how the plot formed as you kept reading, how loose ends were tied and connections were made between the clues. It was just like reading a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Sherlock Holmes novel; follow the trail and try to figure it all out yourself, if you can keep up with it. Which I tried to do but at some point, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Like a mentioned, quite a wide range of characters we got going on here, some of whom are actual historical figures!
John Gower is our protagonist, and a real person in history. When the book switches from third to first person, it’s through his eyes. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what his job was other than to be a holder of the secrets of some very powerful people of the royal court, but I think his official title according to the Character Introduction page is that he is a lawyer and a poet, though we don’t see him do much lawyer-type stuff except for his first scene and we only get hints of his poetry here and there. But I mean, he’s on a quest to find a book that literally jumps from one end of England to the other so I’ll give him a break. I struggle to explain Gower’s personality, which is unusual since he is the only character who gets to be in first person, but I can better describe his feelings for the people around him. I can say how much he loved his deceased wife, how much he loves his estranged son, how he trusted and then distrusted his best friend Chaucer. But to say whether he’s sensitive but stubborn, or cautious but friendly is a tad bit difficult. In the end, unfortunately I didn’t care for him as a character, but I appreciated his strong will and his actions towards the end when he finally puts together the pieces of the puzzle.
Then there is Geoffrey Chaucer, another real life historical figure, Gower’s best friend and a poet who handles the exchanging of wool between England and other countries. Now this is a character whose personality and features stand out strikingly. And why not; after all, he was the one that had written the burnable book in the first place, a book that all of England’s most powerful people were desperately looking for, a book that got several folks killed throughout the novel. And he not only built this fireplace but set it aflame, too, by seducing a woman Gower’s revenge-seeking son was madly in love with, pushing the son to write a prophecy about the last king’s death. So it’s safe to say he is a pretty important character. I liked him as the match that lit the fire, so to speak, and set into motion the whole plot, but as a person, he is rather unlikeable, and for good reason: he pursues an unmarried woman while he himself is married, writes the burnable book of prophecies that foretells the deaths of England’s twelve kings as a joke, works with John Hawkwood–a man known for his cruelty and destruction–and threatens to spill Gower’s biggest secret–one that could get his son executed–should Gower not return the book to him. Some friend. But if he wasn’t the way he was–selfish, manipulative, desperate, in love–we wouldn’t have a tale to spin.
Simon Gower is John’s son, and another unlikeable character whose actions turned the wheel of the story in the same way as Chaucer’s did (despite their hatred for each other, both men are very similar). First, he was no ideal son and as a young man, gets caught in a counterfeit scandal that causes him to be sent to work for John Hawkwood in Italy where is plays the role of a clerk but is really a spy for the chancellor, assigned to watch Hawkwood’s movements and determine his plans for returning to England. But while he is doing both duties, he falls in love with Seguina d’Orange, whose affections lye with Chaucer, igniting Simon’s fury and to seek revenge, writes the thirteenth verse of the burnable book that claims to foretell the death of the thirteenth king, King Richard, who is alive and well in the novel, implicating Chaucer for treason and spinning a web of conspiracies that stretch from the poorest to the highest of people. So yeah, pretty pivotal character, much to John Gower’s ignorance.
King Richard was a pretty refreshing character, in the sense that he seemed to have the purest, rather naive mind, and when he showed up in scenes, it felt like the whole plot of his assassination and all the other schemes just fell away. Then there’s Gaunt and his son, whom I didn’t care for, but I rather liked de la Pole and Isabel Syward; they were cunning in a less dark way which was a nice break. Grimes was so laughable as a character that I hardly took him, or the other butchers, as a threat seriously even when they tried to fulfill Simon’s ‘prophecy’ of being the ones who murder the king. Gerald Rykener annoyed me but I liked the small character developments he eventually showed near the end, especially in regards to his sister. There were other non-villain characters, bishops and librarians and chancellors and knights, who were helpful but unmemorable. I can’t even remember recurring characters like Strode and Pinchbeak very clearly so that’s not a good sign.
I got to say though, not trying to be biased here, but without a doubt the female characters of the book were more interesting, and they weren’t all likeable either, but there was certainly more depth in them.
Starting with the maudlyns, or prostitutes, there is Agnes Fonteyn, a sweet and loving young woman who is the first character to get their hands on the burnable book, after it was handed to her by the woman who stole it, Seguina d’Orange, before she is murdered. Out of all the characters, except for John Gower but this comes much later, she appears to be the only one with knowledge of the book who actually cares about the well-being of King Richard, not as a monarch but as a person, and while this comes off as naive to the people around her, it actually draws up everyone’s morals, unfortunately more so after her murder. There is also Joan Rugg and Bess Walker (Agnes’ mom), dueling heads of their brothels who manage to be portrayed as both skivvy businesswomen and caring mothers to the women that work for them; it’s so rare to see women written in a complex way, let alone ‘lower-class’ women like prostitutes, so that was nice to see though it was more in the background but somehow that made it more charming. Even elderly women like St. Cath were made to be more interesting and intricate.
Of course, then there is Eleanor/Edgar Rykener, and whoa was I ever surprised to find a trans woman in the cast! Well, I mean sometimes the book could be confusing, in that at times I couldn’t tell if she was a trans woman or just a cross-dresser from her vocabulary and mannerisms, but I’m almost sure based on how everyone acted and talked around her that she was a trans woman who didn’t experience dysphoria, or at least not to a noticeable extent, as she was comfortable with her body, with the name Edgar and with dressing as a man when situations called for it. I can’t really make the call though so take this account with a grain of salt, as I am not a trans woman. Eleanor was a mix of personality traits, from lovingly worrying about her transphobic brother to deceiving her friend Agnes and stealing the burnable book, so she was rather well written, to boot, another rarity when among trans characters, or any character really that doesn’t conform to gender norms.
It was exciting to see just how this book was passed around, and as far as my limited knowledge of historical fiction goes, I don’t think many writers will include lower-class characters with little to no power, especially prostitutes so I was more interested in following their story.
Millicent Fonteyn, Agnes’ older sister, was one of those female characters that could be both likable and unlikeable. On one hand, it was totally understandable that she didn’t want to live her whole life as a maudlyn like her mother and sister, and escaping made her feel stronger and freer. It was really brave of her for doing that, escaping the sort of life in that time, and to join a nunnery as well was actually quite ballsy. However, it didn’t last long, but despite failing as a laysister, she sought for a higher position, as a kept and free woman. Thus, up until her lover’s death she was quite used to living a higher life style than as a maudlyn, so when Agnes comes with the burnable book in hand, it’s no wonder Millicent wants nothing to do with her or the book. But she does of course get tugged into the whole problem, and her development from someone who was so desperate to run from her old life that she deceived her family and played a hand in Agnes’ death unknowingly, to someone who was not ashamed of who she was, who helped bring a stop to an invasion and who finally found her way back to her most comfortable home is really something to read, and made her one of my favourite characters, next to Eleanor and Seguina.
Speaking of whom, Seguina…man, what a cool character (other than her falling for and pursuing a married man). Not only does she survive the trauma of watching her mother’s rape at the hands of King Richard’s father, but she survives her whole life being hurtled into different directions, and grows to be not only strong-willed but resourceful and intelligent, picking up skills and languages quickly. It may be her love for Chaucer that set the whole mess in motion, but it was ultimately her love and dedication to King Richard, the son of her mother’s rapist and her brother in a way (because her mother did give birth to a son after her rape, Seguina’s half-brother, who died later in her life) that saved the King and stopped a plan that could cause civil unrest in England before their war with France and before Hawkwood’s invasion. She was quite extraordinary, a sentiment shared by numerous characters who know her story.
Among the side women, there was Katherine Swynford, Gaunt’s lover and an ambitious and headstrong woman who you could tell took no sh*t from no one despite her demeaning role as ‘Lancaster’s whore’; Joan, King Richard’s mother who was also quite strong-willed and wise, and who helped stop the civil war between the royal court and the Lancasters when conspiracies were trying to pull the two groups apart; Philippa Chaucer, Geoffrey’s wife and a strong support of her sister Katherine, despite the rumours that spread about her. All women who showed more profoundness than some of the major recurring male characters.
Finally, the villains. Well I only really felt like Stephen Weldon was the villain, as he caused most of the murders that occurred in the novel, including Seguina’s, and his death was quite brutal, fitting for a cold-hearted murderer. But ultimately the main villain was John Hawkwood, though we hardly saw him do anything terrible; we simply took the word of everyone else, who either admired his brute strength or feared his cruelty. He was the one who thought to use the burnable book to set into motion a plan to assassinate the king and cause unrest before he himself brought his own army to England and claimed a high position (I couldn’t really tell if he was trying to become king or not) but that was only revealed much later in the book and already I felt like others were more responsible. Except for when he cut off Adam Scarlett’s, his most loyal man, fingers and proceeded to explain how he would torture him after he believed Adam was betraying him, we get very little from Hawkwood, so I’ll just have to wrap my mind around him being this ominous, evil genius (which he is but I have to actually FEEL that’s true and not just read it). Pretty much felt Simon was more of the genius when he wrote the encrypted message that framed Adam as a traitor, but whatever.
Like I mentioned, there was one trans character who, to me, didn’t act like a token background character but was actually tied tightly into the story. Among other LGBTQ+ characters, there weren’t any others besides Elanour. In terms of women, there were a fair amount of women in the spotlight, probably more so than the men, and like a mentioned also, they were interesting and complex characters! In terms of disabilities, no one showcased any, except for a limp illustrated by some of the former knights. In terms of neurodivergence, King Edward, King Richard’s father, is mentioned to have mentally deteriorated from battles which lead him to perform various terrible acts like raping Seguina’s mother, which you know, not exactly a great presentation of mental illness. In terms of people of colour, unfortunately this book continues to follow this false pretense that there were little to no people of colour in medieval England, certainly none among the main cast or even the side characters. So overall, not an inclusive novel.
Often times I will forget why I don’t quite enjoy certain genres, one of which is historical fiction (doesn’t really matter the setting). So when I read and was hooked by the summary of ‘A Burnable Book’, I disregarded the historical aspect of it and gave it a shot. However, about 100 pages in, I was reminded quite unwaveringly why it is that I don’t read medieval books.
I’ve used this phrase before, and will use it again: I felt like I was dragging myself through mud to just get half-way through the book. Not because I was bored by the characters or the plot, but because I felt weighed by the vocabulary used. This is of course no fault of the author, who is very historically accurate according to other reviews, but is one reason I’ve hardly been able to finish a historical fiction novel without feeling some annoyance. Visualizing a setting or a sight is what helps immerse me in a story, especially one that is often times in first person, so when I can’t imagine what an abattoir or a jennet looks like, I’m taken right out.
I’m sort of about to contradict myself here but another thing I was not a huge fan of when it came to this book was just how many characters there were. I felt like many randoms were thrown in at different parts and it was hard to keep up, especially again when you don’t even know what a bishop is, for example, and where they stand in regards to status. Some of the characters blended in and were forgotten easily, even when they dropped important information. It was also a good thing there was a Character Introduction page, or I would lose track of almost everyone’s ranks and roles.
Overall, I think Holsinger does a great job of weaving the story and presenting the clues and connections at appropriate times so it isn’t obvious what the answer is. His characterization and the way different paths merged makes for a fantastical journey, and while I felt the climax was a little lackluster and the ending was kind of cheesy (everything works out for everyone except for the villains), the telling of the tale was quite riveting. I wouldn’t mind continuing this series, though it’ll be a long while before I pick up a vocab-heavy historical fiction like this one, again.
My Rating: 3.5/5