Book review: The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger

Fourteenth century poet John Gower was truly a man at the heart and soul of his turbulent times.

The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger
The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger

A court official who knew London well and a good friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, he became closely associated with the nobility and even professed an acquaintance with King Richard II.

His potential to be a fictional ‘trader of secrets’ in a city of shadows, fear and filth was powerfully potent, and one seized upon with imagination, relish and consummate mastery by Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning scholar of the Middle Ages.

Last year’s stunning debut, A Burnable Book, introduced us to Gower, part-time poet and full-time dealer in the clandestine, operating in a kingdom ruled by a headstrong teenage king and haunted by the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst the barons.

That Gower was in reality losing his sight by this time – famously describing himself as ‘senex et cecus’ (old and blind) – only adds pathos to these exhilarating, intelligent thrillers which brim with atmosphere, authenticity, danger and mystery.

Here our poet detective hunts down a menacing and sinister enemy who has brutally dumped the bodies of 16 men in a city sewer, all killed by the latest invention… a gunpowder-filled ‘handgonne,’ a weapon that is set to change the face of warfare forever.

London in 1386 is an uneasy place and it’s not just the ‘rich urban gruel of waste, crime, lust, and vice that flows down every lane.’ The barons are increasingly belligerent towards their young king and the French are known to be assembling a great navy to attack England.

And now mass murder has taken place within the city walls. Sixteen corpses have been discovered, their multiple wounds like none ever seen before. One thing is clear however. Whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.

Gower is summoned to investigate the killings even as London mayor, Nicholas Brembre, ‘a grocer and a tyrant,’ tries to thwart an open inquiry and is rumoured to have had evidence destroyed. Gower learns that the men are victims of the new and terrifying handgonne, a hand-held cannon filled with gunpowder and delivering small iron shot.

Hampered by his ‘creeping blindness’ and challenged by deception and treachery on all sides, Gower battles to unearth the truth in an inquiry that takes him from the city’s labyrinthine slums to the port of Calais and on to the forests of Kent where his friend Geoffrey Chaucer serves as justice of the peace.

As Gower strives to discover the source of the new guns and the identity of those who wielded them, he must risk everything to reveal the truth and prevent a more devastating massacre on London’s crowded streets…

Holsinger conjures up the raucous, restless, unruly world of 14th century London using his knowledge with the deft touch of a seasoned novelist, and using a thrilling brand of literary creativity to take us on a rollercoaster ride through the city’s sights, sounds and smells.

The American professor of English language and literature fields a vast cast of credible characters, from Rose Lipton, the earthy midwife of Fenchurch Street, and the ruthless London mayor to the wily, sharp-eyed Chaucer and the astute and determined Gower.

This is history and mystery in perfect unison, a gripping whodunit set amidst the grinding, grimy reality of everyday life in medieval London and a charismatic, thinking man’s detective driving all the action.

Historical fiction at its best…

(HarperCollins, hardback, £12.99)