The main character is John Gower, a 14th century poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. Gower, as Bruce Holsinger depicts him, is a deeply conflicted man. On one hand, his poetry borders on moral pretension, expressing the highest ideals of moral purity. On the other hand, Gower’s ill-gotten livelihood was obtained through the mafia-like buying and selling of secrets. He’s attained a status of respect, but those from whom he’s extorted naturally despise him.
Many powerful men are under Gower’s thumb. But Gower himself is under the thumb of only one man: his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer. Now, Chaucer is calling in the favor. It seems there is a mysterious and very important book floating around. A book that Chaucer wants. He puts Gower to the task, and at first it seems a rather insignificant assignment. But when Gower begins encountering powerful men who are also in search of this book, he realizes his friend is hiding information and that this book has the potential to tear apart a kingdom.
The journey of the book, itself, is an interesting one. It crosses a continent and a sea with a young woman who is both warrior and lady; is passed into the hands of a lowly maudlyn; stolen by a transgender prostitute; sold to a high-ranking lawyer; and passed off to an earl. In the meantime, John Gower is using up the last of his favor among friends. His estranged son turns up out of nowhere and appears to be connected to the whole mystery. And his best friend appears to be no sort of friend at all.
A Burnable Book contains an extensive cast and an intricate plot, all of which come together apparently seamlessly, in the end. The year is 1385 and the novel was researched down to the very last detail. There was period slang that you’ll not find in modern dictionaries. Detailed depictions of the division of London into three different cities. A wonderful scene set on a street dedicated to publishing books and the division of specialty labors in that industry. Even the story of Edgar/Eleanor, the transgender prostitute, was based on a historical account.
I particularly loved the conflicted Gower. One of my favorite scenes is when Chaucer is critiquing Gower’s most recent poetry. The poems are satire without humor. They’re judgments cast down by an author who’s placed himself in a position of moral superiority over those he’s criticizing.
When Chaucer questions this, Gower says, “Are you saying the lines aren’t true to their subject?”
Chaucer replies, “Much worse, John. They are not true to you.” He goes on to explain that Gower doesn’t take risks in his writing. He doesn’t write from his soul.
I enjoyed this particular debate because Gower, due to his limited insight, couldn’t understand the value of fable…of fiction. It wasn’t until the end that he recognized fiction as a means of revealing truth; as a means of connecting all of the little stories to the bigger stories in the overall story to which we all belong and which contains so many unsolvable mysteries.
Gower’s enlightenment at the end of the novel is icing on the cake of an already satisfying plot. In fact I wasn’t sure whether, in this review, to address this book as character-driven, plot-driven, or theme-driven. It seemed equal parts of all three, which not many books are, these days. The one difficulty I had was getting acclimated to the language and characters. There are a ton of characters and a couple dozen new words in the form of 14th century slang that you have to adjust to. But overall, I loved it. If you enjoy history or mystery, or if you’re a bibliophile or lover of words, this novel is for you.
A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.