Thinking Aloud: “A Burnable Book”

June 2, 2015 by Darius 

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger is a surprisingly enjoyable medieval mystery, with an emphasis on both the “medieval” and the “mystery.”

The book’s plot centers on a subversive book that purportedly prophesies the deaths of England’s last 12 kings—as well as the current king.  For the faction-ridden English court, the book’s existence, evidence of a possible plot against the crown, is dynamite, kindling fears of civil war between supporters of the young king, Richard II, and his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.   Other factions maneuver for advantage, and the whole thing is set against the papal split, tensions with France, and painful memories of a peasants’ uprising a few short years before, in the wake of the Black Death.

A Burnable Book is told from many perspectives simultaneously, including a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales.  Each of these characters have their own storylines, and Holsinger does an admirable job of tying the disparate plot lines together by the book’s end.

As you can probably imagine, the London of the late 14th century was not a pleasant place to be.  Holsinger, a medieval scholar and professor at the University of Virginia, conjures forth the Middle Ages in all of its grotesque glory, from brothels and abattoirs to law courts and palaces.

A Burnable Book succeeds both as a novel and as a conveyance for medieval history.  It would appeal to anyone with an interest in historical fiction.

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