Book Review: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

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A search for a book of prophecies takes Gower, commissioned by Chaucer, his friend, across London, getting caught up in murders, prostitutes and plots to kill the King.

I enjoyed this book, although not entirely.  Its brilliance is in the way that London is brought to life through the skill of the author. Holsinger’s London is gritty, dirty, violent, and hostile. Descriptions are vivid, not always palatable, but utterly convincing. It was a time when activities matched their street names, and Holsinger spares us no blushes. This is tremendous writing.  Most of these observations are delivered in the third person, as we are taken around with the cast of characters, whereas the protagonist, Gower, is delivered to us in the first person.  I am a fan of the first person narrative, but in A Burnable Book it jarred for me, as the narrative switched viewpoints between scenes in the book.  Since I never really felt that I connected with Gower, or really understood him, this first person narrative device did not quite come off.  I did not always like Gower, but I ultimately feel that I didn’t know him, and I wanted more from the writer here.

There is a huge role call of characters listed at the beginning of the book, which is always a bit off-putting to me.  It was, however, essential. There was little hope of holding onto all of the characters otherwise, particularly as few of the characters seemed to have the space to grow and develop.  Where they did, they were superb.  The best-drawn characters were Eleanor/Edgar Rykener (a transvestite) and Millicent Fonteyn (sister of a London maudlyn who gets embroiled in the story of the book), who added depth and colour to the complex plotting.

A Burnable Book is hugely plotted, as we chase a book of prophecies to kill the King across London, Italy and Oxford.  There are a lot of twists and turns, and sub-plots seem to cascade throughout the story.  It was engaging, but sadly not gripping. There is a risk that someone with less patience could become lost in the plots and characters and be tempted to give up.

A Burnable Book is a good read, with a wonderful level of observation in bringing to life a medieval London.  There are parts of the book that are brilliant – like the scenes of the procession on Prince Of Plums, or when Millicent and Agnes are trying to crack the code of the prophecies.  However, it is too complex a book with too few people to get absorbed in who might guide you through the plots. I believe Holsinger is planning another mystery for Gower, which I would read, hoping to learn more about the man himself.

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