The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger is a terrific mystery about the age of modern weaponry and it’s introduction into the English culture. It is London, 1386, and mass murder has taken place within the city walls. Sixteen dead bodies have been found, bearing wounds like none that have been seen before.
“…Shield fragments, I would say,’ said Baker. ‘Carried there by the ball, and lodged in the skin around the point of penetration.’ We both knew, in that moment, what he was about to tell us, though neither of us could quite believe it. ‘These men have been shot, good masters, of that I am certain. Though not with an arrow, nor with a bolt.’
The surgeon turned fully to us, his face somber. ‘These men were killed with hand cannon. Handgonnes, fired with powder, and delivering a small iron shot.’
Handgonnes. A word new to me in that moment, though one that would shape and fill the weeks to come. I looked out over the graves pocking the St. Bart’s churchyard, their inhabitants victims of pestilence, accident, hunger, and crime, yet despite their numberless fates it seemed that man was ever inventing new ways to die…”
John Gower was a blackmailer for lack of a better term. A man who traded in the secrets of nobility to sway one or the other to his advantage. He was also a poet of some renown. He is also the man who saved the crown and solved the riddle of the Burnable Book. With his ability to solve riddles, he is asked to looked into the dead bodies and solve the mystery surrounding their deaths. If the sixteen did die by this new weapon, then why? And what terror does such a weapon hold in the hands of unknown assailants? Gower has little time as an armory is being built of these Handgonnes and a shift in the power of the city is soon to come.
The Invention of Fire is thick with political intrigue and guile. Introduce into the lion’s den of politics that is medieval London, the firearm of a handgun and power can shift overnight. Holsinger brings the time and setting of the city into detailed focus and the back stabbing and nefarious dealing of the city government as well. Gower is the perfect character as an outsider who through his trade in secrets, is yet privy to many of the going ons of the elite.
Holsinger weaves several subplots together but ties them up neatly as the novel comes to its conclusion. A well written historical novel that moves steadily toward its final page.
A good read.