A Burnable Book: A Novel

Overview

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt's artful mistress, Katherine Swynford—England's young king, Richard II, is in mortal peril. Songs are heard across London, said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the ends of England's kings—including Richard's assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a "burnable book," a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily ...

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A Burnable Book: A Novel

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Overview

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt's artful mistress, Katherine Swynford—England's young king, Richard II, is in mortal peril. Songs are heard across London, said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the ends of England's kings—including Richard's assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a "burnable book," a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low.

Gower discovers a conspiracy that reaches from the king's court to London's slums—and potentially implicates Gower's own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that John Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may hold the key to saving the king, and England itself.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
“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.”
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.”
NPR
” ‘A Burnable Book’ is fragrant with the stench of medieval London. . . . The central mystery of the book leads us through the mucky lanes of London, with cunning surprises around every corner. . . . jam-packed tapestry of medieval England.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Spellbinding . . . A Burnable Book exemplifies the best in historical fiction.”
David Liss
“Everything you want in a work of historical fiction: fascinating, rich in period detail, and propelled by a compulsively engaging story. Even better, it’s clever and witty…a superb entertainment.”
Publishers Weekly
★ 01/20/2014
MedievalistHolsinger (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror) 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. Agent: Helen Heller, Helen Heller Agency (Canada). (Mar.)
Library Journal
12/01/2013
Medieval historian Holsinger's first novel is an absorbing narrative exploring royal power and dissent in 14th-century England. King Richard II has many enemies beyond the borders of his kingdom and within. Factions among lords, the clergy, and commoners conspire to take the throne. Geoffrey Chaucer, at work on a series of sketches of everyday England that will become The Canterbury Tales, and an unlikely range of prostitutes, poets, butchers, and nuns are at the twisted center of this plot. With the help of poet John Gower, Chaucer seeks a treasonous book, often fatal to those who possess it, that prophesies a royal death. Multiple plotlines evolve, as noble servants and ignoble knights fight to the death to save the kingdom or bring it down. VERDICT Medieval England never tasted so rich nor smelled so foul as in this descriptive and intricately layered mystery. Holsinger is at his best describing the everyday lives and privations of the lower classes. He succeeds in elevating the missing manuscript genre to new heights that will entertain readers of both fiction and nonfiction. [See Prepub Alert, 9/9/13.]—Catherine Lantz, Morton Coll. Lib., Cicero, IL
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-05
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062240330
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/23/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 203,257
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Holsinger is an award-winning scholar of the medieval period who teaches at the University of Virginia. His books on medieval culture have won prizes from the Modern Language Association, the Medieval Academy of America, and other scholarly organizations. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of research fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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