The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger

The Invention of Fire 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.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

There seem to have been a lot of historical thrillers in recent years that focus on the search for a valuable item – a book, a crown or a manuscript. A Burnable Book is another one, but with enough differences to make it feel refreshing and original. While many authors (CJ Sansom, SJ Parris, Nancy Bilyeau to name a few) set their stories in the Tudor period, this one is set in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, a period covered less often in historical fiction. The missing item in question is a book of prophecies which accurately predicts the deaths of the previous twelve Kings of England…and the one who is currently on the throne, King Richard II.

This book – and the embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped – has fallen into the hands of Agnes Fonteyn, a ‘maudlyn’ (or prostitute), who receives it from another girl whom she meets just outside London’s city walls. Minutes later this girl is murdered, leaving Agnes, who is unaware of the book’s contents, wondering what is so special about it that someone was prepared to kill for it.

John Gower, poet and ‘trader in information’, hears about the book from his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain exactly why he wants it so desperately. When John begins his search for the book he soon discovers that he and Chaucer are not the only ones looking for it and that the prophecies it contains could implicate one of England’s most important noblemen in a plot against the King. As the action moves from one side of London to the other, over the Thames to Southwark, to the libraries of Oxford and then to Florence and back again, the history of this ‘burnable book’ is slowly revealed.

The name of the author, Bruce Holsinger, should be familiar to anyone who took the Coursera course “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” last year (Holsinger was the instructor). This is his first novel and after listening to him talk about other works of historical fiction during the course, I was interested to see what his own book would be like. I’m pleased to report that it’s very good! The setting is believable, the historical background feels thoroughly researched, the plot is cleverly constructed and the story is exciting.

I did have a slight problem with the number of characters in the book as I found some of them difficult to distinguish from each other, particularly some of the bishops and noblemen who only played a minor role in the story. After a while, though, several characters began to emerge as stronger and more interesting than the others: John Gower, whose strained relationship with his exiled son, Simon, is tested during the course of his investigations; Millicent Fonteyn, sister of Agnes, who will do anything to avoid returning to life in the brothel where she grew up; and Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, born “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both”. I liked the fact that the novel shows us the lives of people from all levels of society, from the nobility and clergy of England to London’s lower classes, including butchers’ apprentices and the ‘maudlyns’. Eventually the stories of each of these characters and more begin to come together, connected by the common thread of the burnable book and its treasonous prophecies.

Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar and it shows in his portrayal of the 14th century world which feels accurate and authentic. I can’t say the same for the dialogue, which is too modern for the period, but this didn’t irritate me as much as it sometimes does and the slang probably reflected the way some of the characters would have spoken. When reading the author’s note at the end I was interested to find that some of the things I’d assumed were fictional were actually based on fact. The character of Edgar or Eleanor Rykener, for example, was inspired by historical records of a transvestite prostitute. The poet John Gower really existed but not many details of his life are known, so Holsinger was able to use his imagination to fill in the gaps.

I think my favourite aspect of the novel was the concept of the ‘burnable book’ itself and the cryptic messages it contains. It was fascinating to learn more about the process of creating and breaking ciphers and codes and to watch as various characters tried to interpret the meanings of the prophecies. I also enjoyed following Gower’s mission to locate the book and identify its author, and the problems faced by Agnes and the other maudlyns in deciding what to do with such a dangerous possession. I don’t know if Bruce Holsinger is planning to write a sequel to A Burnable Book but I hope so as I would love to meet some of these characters again!