I just got back from a trip to the fourteenth century, courtesy of A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. Set primarily in London at the time of Chaucer (before he wrote Canterbury Tales), the book is a historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages.
The main plot centers around a search for the “burnable book” of the title. Said to be written during the reign of William the Conqueror, the seditious book foretells the death of the English monarchs. Only the thirteenth prophecy has not yet been fulfilled – and it is about the current king! At the beginning of the novel, the book in question falls into the hands of Agnes, a maudlyn (prostitute), and Agnes enlists her sister Millicent and a friend (Eleanor Rykener, also known as Edgar) into helping figure out what to do with it. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Chaucer himself has recruited his friend and fellow poet John Gower into helping him find the book. It quickly becomes apparent that Chaucer is not the only one looking for the book, and bit by bit it seems like all the omens leading to King Richard II’s death are being fulfilled.
The primary plot is supplemented by a complex web of numerous subplots, including the story of a girl from Spain, the ambitions of the mercenary John Hawkwood, and Rykener’s quest to rescue younger brother Gerald from a dangerous guardianship. The characters are well-developed, with believable interactions with each other.
Holsinger gives us some glimpses of the life of royalty and other members of the upper class, but for the most part, the reader is immersed into the earthy lives of the maudlyns and others who struggle to survive in a harsh world. The fourteenth century really comes to life with the rich details of everyday living. Holsinger’s masterful use of language provides a definite medieval ambience, with selected Middle English words incorporated into the dialogue, but not so many as to make it difficult for a modern reader to decipher.
Authors of historical fiction have artistic license to alter or embellish some details in the interest of creating a more compelling story, but there is the unwritten “rule” that the threads of history must remain intact if the work is to be called historical fiction rather than, say, historical fantasy or alternate history. When real historical figures are used as characters, they must remain true to the nature of the actual historical person. When not much is known about a historical figure, details may be made up, but the goal should be to try to recreate the person as he or she really may have been. I think Holsinger did a wonderful job in developing the Rykener character, who was a real historical person, but one about whom very little is known. My biggest qualm with the book is some discomfort with the character of John Gower. We know relatively little about Gower’s real life, but we do have a reasonably large corpus of surviving work that may provide insight into his nature, as well as some known key details of his life. The characterization of Gower as a combination of a blackmailer and a detective is not entirely convincing relative to what we do know of Gower’s actual life. Also, for someone who is supposed to be a devious and skilled snoop, Gower seems to make a lot of blunders and miscalculations.