A Burnable Book: A Novel

by Bruce Holsinger

(Morrow, $26.99, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Bruce Holsinger, who teaches about the medieval world in the English Department at the University of Virginia, has won many prizes and fellowships for his scholarly work on that period of history and has published six nonfiction books about its culture and events. Now, in his debut novel, Holsinger blends his encyclopedic knowledge of 14th century England  with a mystery plot involving political intrigue and the possible assassination of young King Richard II, to fine effect.

What is this book about?

Set in London in 1385, and featuring poet Geoffrey Chaucer amongst its characters, “A Burnable Book” is an historical thriller that is also a vivid travelogue that takes its readers back to medieval times. It involves a forbidden book of poems that are believed to prophesize the death of British kings, including poor Richard II. Chaucer, who works as what we would today call a government bureaucrat when he is not writing some of the English-speaking world’s most enduring poetry, engages another poet, John Gower, to track down the mysterious volume and the complex conspiracy that surrounds it. As lively as the plot is Holsinger’s vivid, almost palpably odiferous description of the filthy conditions of those times, when blood, muck, offal and excrement filled the streets.

Why you’ll like it:

It takes an expert to re-animate the long-dead past, and Holsinger has the knowledge and deep insights to do just that. Reading this book will give you a fine history lesson, but it will not seem like studying, because the lively plot and characters – and the sounds, smells, tastes and other sensory details that Holsinger so aptly describes – bring the story to life. Enter his way-back machine and you will find yourself living in another world, at least for the time it takes to read this engrossing — and often gross – novel.

What others are saying:

“Holsinger is…a fantastic historical novelist…definitely a strong new talent in the field. This book has everything–Chaucer, cryptography, murder, Katherine Swynford, the Southwark stews, English royalty, prophecy. It’s that rare thing: a well-written, historically accurate thriller,” says Historical Fiction Notebook.

NPR’s review by Jean Zimmerman says: “I fell into a state of dazed puzzlement at the start of this book, whose first chapter includes a remote century’s bitter winter, “sour ale” in an “undercroft tavern,” the stink of Newgate Jail, French secret agents, a wild-haired preacher and conversations in Italian and French as well as English. But after spending time with the knights, scholars and whores who populate the 1385 London of Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book, the pull of the story asserted itself: The search for a treasonous book of poems triggered labyrinthine plots and subplots that kept me guessing until the last page. Poems accused of treasonous intent? Now that I simply had to see.

At the center of A Burnable Book stands the flawed, aging fixer, John Gower. Resembling a less-powerful version of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, Gower sets off on the hunt for the missing book at the behest of his friend, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer, who in Holsinger’s debut novel is accomplished and celebrated in London literary circles, but has not yet penned his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.

The “burnable” book of the title is a work of poetic prophecy, ostensibly written during the reign of William the Conqueror, which foretells in gory detail the demise of thirteen English kings. In a society where it’s a hanging offense merely to think of the king’s death, this is seditious stuff. More to the point for Chaucer’s contemporaries, Liber de Mortibus Regum Anglorum prophesizes the assassination of the sitting ruler, Richard II. The central mystery of the book leads us through the mucky lanes of London, with cunning surprises around every corner.”

New York Times Book Review says: “The poet John Gower is the perfect narrator and amateur sleuth. . . . Holsinger’s research, alongside the energetic vulgarity of a language in flux, delivers up a world where even the filth is colorful.”

Says the Washington Post: “Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century, lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary.”

In its starred review, Publishers Weekly says: “Medievalist Holsinger . . . delivers a first novel whose zest, breadth, and color evoke The Canterbury Tales. In 1385, Geoffrey Chaucer asks fellow poet and dealer in information, John Gower, to find a cryptic manuscript that predicts specifically how the current monarch, Richard II, will be assassinated. Gower discovers that the book has been stolen from Westminster by an unidentified woman, later murdered; dying, she gave it to a common prostitute, who is now hiding it in London. As treasonous texts begin to inflame an already dissatisfied populace, Gower realizes that the king, the book’s possessor, and his friend Chaucer are in danger, and his own son is threatened as well. For the first time, he finds himself at the mercy of other men’s secrets, rather than in control of them. Though the period’s unfamiliar terms and figures can be confusing, the intricate plot, sharp characterizations, and sweeping depiction of medieval England make this a memorable fiction debut.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In 1385 London, the race is on to recover a missing book. Outside the walls of London, Agnes, a “maudlyn,” or prostitute, observes the murder, by a cloaked, Italian-speaking thug, of a young woman, whose dress and accent bespeak noble birth. Agnes leaves the scene with a hidden prize: a book wrapped in a delicate tapestry. Meanwhile, John Gower, the 14th-century equivalent of a grizzled detective, has gotten wind of a conspiracy against the reigning king, Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince and nephew of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The plot may have been fomented by the followers of the recently executed heretic Wycliffe, who are using the prophecies of one Lollius, an ancient Roman, as a blueprint. Lollius, it seems, predicted the manner of death of each English sovereign since William the Conqueror, and there is one prediction yet to be fulfilled: that on St. Dunstan’s Day, near a bishop’s palace, butchers—abetted by a Long Castle (Lancaster)—will lie in wait to slay the current monarch. As it happens, these prophecies are contained in Agnes’ contraband volume, which has fallen into the hands of her sister Millicent, who hopes to sell it to restore herself to the middle-class existence she once attained as a knight’s mistress. Trouble is, possession of a “burnable book,” one that embodies heresy and/or threats to the king’s person, is high treason. Gower and his friend Geoffrey Chaucer are hot on the tome’s trail when Gower’s sinister son, Simon, returns inopportunely from exile abroad. Enter Agnes’ best friend Eleanor/Edgar, a transvestite, whose main goal is to free his brother Gerald, a butcher’s apprentice, from the clutches of his cruel master, Grimes. Gerald has overheard Grimes planning just the sort of butchery envisioned by the book. Although the burgeoning web of plots and plotlines is dauntingly complex, the determined reader will be rewarded with a fascinating overview of pre-Renaissance London at its best and worst. A highly literate thriller from medievalist Holsinger.”

When is it available?

Please do not burn this book, or any other. This one is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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