This is the second in Bruce Holsinger’s series of historical mystery/thrillers set in 14th century England. A Burnable Book introduced us to John Gower, poet and ‘trader in secrets’, and followed his search for a book of prophecies containing a treasonous prediction foretelling the King’s death. In The Invention of Fire we enter Gower’s world again as he attempts to solve a second mystery. It’s not necessary to have read A Burnable Book first, although I would recommend doing so; I read it last year and enjoyed it, so have been looking forward to this new one.
The Invention of Fire begins in the year 1386 when sixteen dead bodies are found in a London privy one night. The cause of death is not obvious at first, but it soon becomes clear that the men were killed by a weapon few people in England have seen or even heard of. John Gower’s mission is to investigate the murders – an investigation that will lead him on a journey into the Kent countryside with his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, and then across the sea to Calais where he is reunited with a face from his past. But when it is revealed that some of England’s most powerful men are involved in the crime, Gower becomes aware of the danger his own life is in – and of the implications of the new weapon on the future of warfare.
John Gower is an interesting character to build these novels around. He is a person who really existed in the 14th century, but one who is not particularly well known today. This gives Holsinger scope to use his imagination and create some fascinating fictional storylines for the character, while at the same time incorporating the few facts that we do know about the real John Gower: for example, his work as a poet, his friendship with fellow poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and the fact that he became blind in later life.
I have seen the John Gower novels compared with CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series and there are definitely some similarities. This book reminded me very much of Sansom’s Dark Fire which I read earlier this year; the time period is completely different, of course, but the plot is quite similar and both deal with the discovery of a new weapon. I have to admit, the weaponry aspect of this book didn’t particularly interest me, and with everything that has been going on in the world recently it’s depressing to read about the invention of new ways to kill. I was more interested in Gower’s personal story – his relationship with his son, his efforts to cope with his gradual loss of sight, and his conversations with Chaucer, who is working on The Canterbury Tales.
I had hoped there would be a third book in this series, but Bruce Holsinger has said that his next novel will be a ‘transhistorical fantasy’. That sounds intriguing but I hope he might still return to John Gower in the future.