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A Burnable Book: A Novel

A Burnable Book: A Novel

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by Bruce Holsinger

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In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, royal intrigue, mystery, and dangerous politics swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings. Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book is an irresistible historical thriller reminiscent of the classics An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the


In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, royal intrigue, mystery, and dangerous politics swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings. Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book is an irresistible historical thriller reminiscent of the classics An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose, and The Crimson Petal and the White.

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt's artful mistress, Katherine Swynford—England's young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the end of England's kings—and among the book's predictions is 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 that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king's court to London's slums and stews—and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate.

Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
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
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.)
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.”
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.”
” ‘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.”
Kirkus Reviews
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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HarperCollins Publishers
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John Gower Series , #1
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Meet the Author

Bruce Holsinger is the author of the first John Gower novel, A Burnable Book, and an award-winning scholar of the medieval period who teaches at the University of Virginia. 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. www.bruceholsinger.com

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A Burnable Book 4.1 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 11 reviews.
ebroMN More than 1 year ago
I loved reading this book. It's not quite a mystery novel, not fully a novel of politics, but it is suspenseful, funny, sad, and exciting, and brings 14th century London to life. It's literary, but much easier to enter into than a work like Wolf Hall. I don't usually like historical fiction, but Holsinger does a fabulous job with this novel. If you don't know a lot about the 14th century, I would recommend reading The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer alongside this novel (Holsinger also recommends it at the back of the novel). It's a very readable overview of life in the 14th century and can help with understanding the terminology for time or what people's clothing looked like. Since the novel is full of these details, it's a richer experience if you have a bit more background while reading the novel.
carrobin More than 1 year ago
My interests in historical fiction focus on England, and it's unusual to find a mystery set in the time of Richard II. This one is well crafted and intriguing, with interesting characters--many of them prostitutes, who are far more reliable and relatable than the plotters involved in overthrowing the monarchy. The English dynasties were complex with many king-wannabes willing to risk life and limb (including head) for the prize, which means almost any story of medieval realms has to be fascinating. I liked this one, which involves Chaucer--a shady character in many ways  as well as a great writer.
Anonymous 10 months ago
A fascinating journey into medieval England and a twisting mystery solved by poet John Gower kept me turning each page until I finished the entire book in one sitting. Of course, I wish I had started it sooner than six of the clock at night. I felt I was standing alongside each character as I turned the pages and couldn't stop reading for fear of waking up in my current time. Who needs time travel when there are books this good? From the beginning, I was caught up in the murder of a young, unknown lady, witnessed by another unfortunate young 'lady' whose profession turns out to be one of the oldest in the world. Thus starts a chain of events that leads to more murders, conspiracies, and assasination attempts on King Edward II. John Gower is asked to find the book by his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer....which leads him on a trail of intrigue and treasures found in other books. Unfortunately, the one John needs to find seems to cause death to anyone who reads it or even knows about it. And, there is a sad and mysterious back story twining its way behind the scene throughout this whole tale. All in all, an excellent read. I'm looking forward to the next one. Thank you so very much!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This well researched medieval mystery brings to life, with a feeling of authenticity, the society of England in the time of Richard II
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have always had a buried desire to read stories of English kings and knights and royal courts. Author Bruce Holsinger has helped to unearth those hidden yearnings. He has crafted a good novel with Geoffrey Chaucer and the predicted assination of King Richard II. Everything is built around a book that is said to accurately predict the deaths of the death of the past twelve kings of England and that Richard will soon be slain. The hunt is joined and a dangerous and deadly search for this book by a very minor noble is underway. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. One suggestion, keep a good dictionary near at hand and don't hesitate to do multiple internet searches to fully comprehend this story. J M Lydon
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Period am interested in so may be the problem read a few chapters then skipped to end found it boring may go back and unarchive couldnt get thru shakespere mysteries either