Drawing from historical records, Holsinger recreates 14th-century England under the rule of Richard II.
Protagonist John Gower, a merchant of secrets and close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, is drawn into a local mystery that expands with suspicions of treason against the crown. It is an era rife with the threat of invasion by the forces of France and Burgundy, but the author manages each element of Gower’s inquiry with an eye to the particulars of place and politics, establishing the personalities and customs of each area Gower visits, whether the gates of London or the privies of the London slums and those who make a living from carting waste.
It begins with the discovery of sixteen bodies dumped into a slum privy. Excavation yields the corpses of men killed in an unusual manner, perhaps with a new type of weapon rumored to be in use currently: a handgonne that renders the clumsy firearms so far invented obsolete and impractical. The fortunes of war have dictated innovation, a more sophisticated way of killing that is both efficient and practical on the field. This smaller gun holds promise, an invention that has the power to stun and overwhelm opposing forces. Still at the beginning of this troubling case, Gower, who barters in the secrets of powerful men, takes his wits and a heavy purse in pursuit of information, confiding only in Chaucer as he seeks answers: Who were the murdered men? Why has the local mayor quashed any official investigation concerning the perpetrators?
Continuing his queries for men loyal to the king who encourage suspicion of the king’s powerful enemy, the Duke of Gloucester, Gower scurries about, speaking to a local hermit, guards on the Gates of London, and various people willing to exchange bits of knowledge for coin. Eventually, the picture that is forming sends Gower from Kent to Calais--and the site of a recent massacre of helpless citizens--and back to a local smithy and the mayor’s wife.
Each interview adds to what becomes a nefarious scheme far larger and more damaging than Gower expects at the beginning of his inquiry.
Other relevant characters and events flesh out a tale steeped in authentic detail, such as the careful work of a craftsman charged with creating a deadly weapon from molten metal and the secrets nursed by men of influence who are blackmailed into silence to the wanton murder of those to eager to share what they know. Insular London lifestyles are contrasted with the pomp and authority of legal trappings, the luxuries of wealth and power with the hardscrabble existence of cutpurses who risk the amputation of limbs in pursuit of their craft, the hypocrisy of leaders who slake their sexual thirsts in secret while God-fearing men and women seek favors on pilgrimage. Given Gower’s penchant for fitting into shadows, whether among nobles or commoners, his purse buys many answers, exposing a complex plot that he must untangle before more damage is inflicted, a twisted fanaticism unveiled before tragedy occurs.
With Holsinger’s deft touch, everything falls perfectly into place, though not easily.
The complicated structure of 14th-century English society is built on the mechanisms of guilds and committees as cities evolves, incorporating trade, labor, and local governance. The sedition of a few has the power to create anarchy and chaos--and nearly does.