As Bruce Holsinger portrays London, Southwark, and Westminster in A Burnable Book, you can’t swing a cat without hitting three plotters. In this novel, the plots begin with a book of prophecies that claim to predict the deaths of all the English kings from William the Conqueror to Richard II. Of course, when Geoffrey Chaucer asks his friend and fellow poet, John Gower, to go looking for this book, Gower has no idea what he’s in for.
In the prologue to A Burnable Book, a young woman is murdered by a shadowy man. He questions her in an unknown language, but is unable to find what he’s looking for: a book. The book is, unbeknownst to him, in the possession of Agnes Fonteyn, a maudlyn (a prostitute). Agnes runs to her sister’s house to hide, but the book doesn’t stay hidden for long. As Agnes and her sister and friends elude the mysterious murderer from the prologue, John Gower uses his contacts across the city to try and find the book. Along the way, he finds that the book is at the center of a plot to assassinate the king, Richard II.
The words of the thirteenth prophecy, the one purporting to prophesy Richard’s death, go viral—or whatever the medieval equivalent is. Gower finds the words, the rhythm strangely familiar. It’s like he has the name of the poet on the tip of his brain. As he digs deeper, he finds out that the prophecies are a forgery—but that someone is trying to make them come true. Gower also finds out that he is a much smaller fish in the London pond than he thought he was. Others are playing a longer and deeper game than he’s ever tried to play.
Events go from troubling to Gower to downright alarming when his son, an accused counterfeiter and murderer, returns from Italy. By this time, Agnes and the maudlyns are in danger for their lives. Gower’s friend Chaucer appears to be implicated in the treasonous business of the book. A Burnable Book is best read in as few sittings as possible because there is so much going on here. You have multiple narrators, one of whom is transgender. Another narrator turns out to have died before the book starts. Then there are all the plots. It’s a lot to keep track of.
Other critics have pointed out that the strength of this book is in the richness of the setting. I have to agree. A Burnable Book is so well researched that you can smell the history. Holsinger shows you the brutality, but also the beauty, of medieval London and Southwark. I don’t know that I buy Chaucer’s role here, given what I know about his royal patronage and friendships with Prince Edward and Richard II. I wonder why Holsinger chose Gower to be his protagonist. I really liked the parts narrated by Edgar/Eleanor Rykener. She is a wonderful, unusual character and she frequently stole the show from Gower.