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The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger
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The Invention of Fire (2015)

by Bruce Holsinger

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When sixteen dead men are found in one of London's sewers, with fifteen bearing wounds no one has ever seen before, John Gower is asked by one of his Guildhall contacts to look into the matter. Meanwhile, two prisoners are fleeing north to escape not only the long arm of the law, but also the reach of a very powerful man, having witnessed an atrocity that they should not have survived.

This is the second volume in Bruce Holsinger's series centred on the poet and dealer in information John Gower. With this book the reader is plunged into tensions both domestic and international, with King Richard II at odds with the lords appellant and a portion of England's citizens, and the realm under threat from invasion from the combined forces of France and Burgundy. Into this political mix is thrown the evolution of the portable gun, which marks a seismic shift in the way humans deal out death.

To me these were the most interesting aspects of the book, while the whodunit element wasn't quite as successful, with all fingers pointing so obviously in one direction that the author was clearly leading the reader along a false trail. Furthermore, the narrative is subdivided into two further strands: one tracking the two escapees and the second following a talented smith and founder who becomes instrumental in the development and eventual deployment of the new weapon; while the second plot strand definitely adds to the story, the first could easily have been dispensed with as it doesn't add anything to the narrative per se. Still, this is an intelligent historical political thriller and I'm looking forward to further stories with John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. ( )
  passion4reading | Aug 17, 2018 |
A good historical novel can teach the reader, as well as entertain. Bruce Holsinger, in "The Invention of Fire" (a sequel to his first novel, "A Burnable Book") takes his readers back to 14th century London during the rule of Richard II.
Fourteenth century poet John Gower was truly a man at the heart and soul of his turbulent times.A court official who knew London well and a good friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, he became closely associated with the nobility and even professed an acquaintance with King Richard II.
His potential to be a fictional ‘trader of secrets’ in a city of shadows, fear and filth was powerfully potent, and one seized upon with imagination, relish and consummate mastery by Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning scholar of the Middle Ages.
Last year’s stunning debut, A Burnable Book, introduced us to Gower, part-time poet and full-time dealer in the clandestine, operating in a kingdom ruled by a headstrong teenage king and haunted by the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst the barons.
That Gower was in reality losing his sight by this time – famously describing himself as ‘senex et cecus’ (old and blind) ¬ – only adds pathos to these exhilarating, intelligent thrillers which brim with atmosphere, authenticity, danger and mystery.
Here our poet detective hunts down a menacing and sinister enemy who has brutally dumped the bodies of 16 men in a city sewer, all killed by the latest invention… a gunpowder-filled ‘handgonne,’ a weapon that is set to change the face of warfare forever.
London in 1386 is an uneasy place and it’s not just the ‘rich urban gruel of waste, crime, lust, and vice that flows down every lane.’ The barons are increasingly belligerent towards their young king and the French are known to be assembling a great navy to attack England.
And now mass murder has taken place within the city walls. Sixteen corpses have been discovered, their multiple wounds like none ever seen before. One thing is clear however. Whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.
Gower is summoned to investigate the killings even as London mayor, Nicholas Brembre, ‘a grocer and a tyrant,’ tries to thwart an open inquiry and is rumoured to have had evidence destroyed. Gower learns that the men are victims of the new and terrifying handgonne, a hand-held cannon filled with gunpowder and delivering small iron shot.
Hampered by his ‘creeping blindness’ and challenged by deception and treachery on all sides, Gower battles to unearth the truth in an inquiry that takes him from the city’s labyrinthine slums to the port of Calais and on to the forests of Kent where his friend Geoffrey Chaucer serves as justice of the peace.
As Gower strives to discover the source of the new guns and the identity of those who wielded them, he must risk everything to reveal the truth and prevent a more devastating massacre on London’s crowded streets…
Holsinger conjures up the raucous, restless, unruly world of 14th century London using his knowledge with the deft touch of a seasoned novelist, and using a thrilling brand of literary creativity to take us on a rollercoaster ride through the city’s sights, sounds and smells.
The American professor of English language and literature fields a vast cast of credible characters, from Rose Lipton, the earthy midwife of Fenchurch Street, and the ruthless London mayor to the wily, sharp-eyed Chaucer and the astute and determined Gower.
This is a gripping whodunit set amidst the grinding, grimy reality of everyday life in medieval London. Looking forward to the next instalment
( )
  Jawin | Jun 22, 2018 |
This second John Gower novel improves with respect to the first in some ways, but there are still some structural things that I don’t really like. That’s a personal preference though, and not a judgement of quality. I actually totally missed out on the why of the structure until the second book. I initially thought that the narrative was actually jumping to the third person instead of Gower retrospectively filling in blanks based on future knowledge. Switching between the first and third persons didn’t throw me out of the book like it did the in the first book, so maybe I started to clue in earlier than I realized. It’s still a weird thing to do.

This time around John Gower gets called in to investigate the murders by handgonne of sixteen men that were found in a kind of primitive sewer/drainage ditch in London. Chaucer is present in the novel but isn’t around as much, since he’s moved to Greenwich. Part of the reason I didn’t rate this book higher was because the more I found out about the mystery, the more I thought that the whole thing didn’t make sense. For example, why would you bother transporting the bodies to London if you didn’t want them found, and if you did want them found…? It turns out it doesn’t make sense because there’s a twist of sorts, but it’s played straight for so long that I just found the conclusion to be disappointing.

When it finally came out that the men had all died as a result of forced duelling, I just sighed. It was less interesting than the firing squad option. It also sounded like they didn’t have enough men to allow the prisoners to be armed, which I guess is correct based on what happened. So the experimentation seemed foolish.


Also, some of the attempts showing the change in mindset necessitated by the use of hangonnes worked whereas others just fell flat. It makes sense that their use would reflect a radical shift in perspectives, but I didn’t really feel it. The romanticization of firearms felt forced.
( )
  natcontrary | May 21, 2018 |
Really this book should have been three stars, but I gave it an extra one simply because I love that Geoffrey Chaucer is a character. Overall, this is a decent follow-up to A Burnable Book (although, I admit I enjoyed that book more than this one), and it picks up on a few unresolved threads from the previous book. This is definitely a good book for those interested in medieval England, but I don't know that it would have much crossover appeal. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Jul 11, 2017 |
Gripping story, with colorful characters, although a little slow at times. Set in London in 1386, we get a tale of political intrigue mixed with a solid murder mystery. Once I was invested in the plot the pace seemed to move at a better clip as well. By all means worth the read! ( )
  bearlyr | Sep 8, 2015 |
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For Betsy and Bob
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The water seeped past, groping for the dead.
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Surprise in sewer
Sixteen men dead in a ditch
Murder by handgonne
(passion4reading)

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"Though he is one of England's most acclaimed intellectuals, John Gower is no stranger to London's wretched slums and dark corners, and he knows how to trade on the secrets of the kingdom's most powerful men. When the bodies of sixteen unknown men are found in a privy, the Sheriff of London seeks Gower's help. The men's wounds--ragged holes created by an unknown object--are unlike anything the sheriff's men have ever seen. Tossed into the sewer, the bodies were meant to be found. Gower believes the men may have been used in an experiment--a test for a fearsome new war weapon his informants call the "handgonne," claiming it will be the "future of death" if its design can be perfected. Propelled by questions of his own, Gower turns to courtier and civil servant Geoffrey Chaucer, who is working on some poems about pilgrims that Gower finds rather vulgar. Chaucer thinks he just may know who commissioned this new weapon, an extremely valuable piece of information that some will pay a high price for--and others will kill to conceal" --… (more)

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