A Burnable Book*, the first novel from noted medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger, is enjoyable on so many levels that it’s difficult to decide where to begin. It’s historical fiction, a mystery, a book about books, and a character study, all rolled into one.
London in 1385 is dangerous and dirty, still reeling after a revolt by the commons several years earlier. Nobles jostle each other for favor at court, bishops visit the stews without charity in mind, and everyone from the butcher’s boy to a duke’s mistress tries to navigate through precarious games and ploys.
John Gower, the English poet now better known primarily for his appearance in Shakespeare’s Pericles than for his writing (Mirroir de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis are his major works) is in Professor Holsinger’s novel a man of secrets, a dealer in information with his own shadows that he’d prefer stay hidden. When his friend Chaucer comes to him for help finding a missing book whose cryptic verses are already spreading through London, Gower, the “subterranean man,” is drawn into a web of conspiracy, murder, and lies that reaches from England’s highest nobles to the maudlyns (prostitutes) in London’s stews. The book is a “burnable book” — treasonous — and those who possess it are hunted by forces that even Gower can’t identify. As the novel approaches its climax, unraveling metaphor and mystery begin to amount to the same thing.
The cast of characters in A Burnable Book is so long that Professor Holsinger includes a listing before the action begins. Gower and Chaucer are delightful to watch from this distance, especially in terms of their combative friendship. Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s mistress, and Isabel Syward, prioress of St. Leonard’s Bromely are drawn with a fine brush, calculating and calm, working for their own ends. And then there are the maudlyns — so very many of them! By far the most interesting of these is Eleanor/Edgar Rykener, who switches gender presentation depending on clients’ preferences and the relative safety of different parts of London and its environs. Eleanor/Edgar is deeply caring and mightily resourceful, easily my favorite of all the author’s inventions.
A Burnable Book’s meticulous attention to period detail reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while King Richard’s cameo appearances are notable for the combination of political non-acumen and lyrical speech that characterize Shakespeare’s own Richard II. The narrative is just as earthy as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s speech, though considerably (and understandably) less funny. And for its literary/action combination, The Name of the Rose comes to mind. In other words, there’s a little something for all kinds of readers to be found in A Burnable Book, and I hope Professor Holsinger will sally forth into the fictional fourteenth century again soon.
*My thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.