Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

book cover

The Book of Fires
by Jane Borodale

Hardback: 368 pages
Publisher: Viking
First Released: 2010

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Back Cover Description:
It is 1752. Winter is approaching, and two secrets--an unwanted pregnancy and a theft--drive seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel to run away from her home in rural Sussex. Lost and frightened as night descends on the menacing streets of London, she is drawn to a curious sign depicting a man holding a star. It is the home of Mr. J. Blacklock, a brooding fireworks maker who is grieving for his recently deceased wife. He hires Agnes as his apprentice, and as she learns to make rockets, portfires, and fiery rain, she slowly gains the laconic Blacklock's trust. He initiates her into his peculiar art and sparks in her a shared obsession for creating the most spectacular fireworks the world has ever seen.

But her condition is becoming harder to conceal, and through it all, the clock is ticking--for Agnes's secret will not stay hidden forever. Soon she meets Cornelius Soul, seller of gunpowder, and she conceives of a plan that could save her. But why does Blacklock so vehemently disapprove of Mr. Soul? And what is Blacklock hiding from her? Could he be on the brink of a discovery that will change pyrotechny forever? A summer storm is brewing--but Agnes has no idea that her mysterious mentor has been watching her and hatching plans of his own.

The Book of Fires vividly evokes a dark bygone world and paints a portrait of 1750s London that is unforgettable, from the grimy streets to the inner workings of a household where little is as it seems. Beautifully written, complex, and layered, The Book of Fires is a captivating debut of fireworks, redemption, and the strange alchemy that will forever change the fortunes of a young woman once bound for ruin.

The Book of Fires is a richly detail historical set in England in 1752-53. It's clear that the author did her research, and the details of 18th century life and firework making brought the world alive in my imagination. However, at times this turned into a very pleasant "how they did it" historical lesson that didn't move the plot forward and so slowed the pace. History-lovers won't care, but others might find these spots boring.

I didn't particularly like the characters, but they were complex. I felt sympathy for Agnes. I did want to know what happened to the characters, and what happened was well-written, interesting, and not always expected.

The novel was written in present tense ("I see" vs "I saw"). Actually, the first chapter jumped around between tenses ("I see" to "I saw" to "I am seeing"), and there were so many "is" and "am" used (partly due to a number of passive sentences) that I found it distracting. However, in chapter two, these problems quickly disappeared and the story settled down into a very readable present tense.

One nit-pick: The author used a lot of "I see that" and even a number of "I smell" and "I hear" that could have been cut without harming the sentence. At the beginning, there were sometimes so many of these "I see that" used that I felt like Agnes thought I was a blind traveling companion rather than feeling immersed in her viewpoint. Again, this problem (mostly) disappeared as the book went on.

There was a rape scene--only a paragraph long and not graphic. There was a minor amount of cursing and swearing. Overall, I'd recommend this book to those interested in learning more about fireworks and 18th century London life in the form of an interesting novel.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
There is a regular rasp of a blade on a stone as he sharpens the knives. The blade makes a shuddery, tight noise that I feel in my teeth. It's November, and today is the day that we kill the pig.

I am inside the house, bending over the hearth. I lay pieces of dry elm and bark over the embers and they begin to kindle as the fire takes. A warm fungus smell rises up and the logs bubble juices and resin. The fed flames spit and crackle, colored jets hissing out wet. A column of thick smoke pours rapidly up the chimney and out into the sky like a gray liquid into milk. I hang the bellows from the strap and straighten up. Fire makes me feel good. Burning things into ash and nothingness makes my purpose seem clearer.

When I stand back, I see that the kitchen is full of smoke. My mother is busy and short of breath, flustering between the trestles and the fireside, two blotches of color rising on her cheekbones. This fire must be a roasting blaze, one of the hottest of the year. It has to heat the biggest pots brimful with boiling water to scald the pigskin, and later will simmer the barley and puddings, fatty blood and grain packed into the washed guts, moving cleanly around in the cauldron of water. I go to the door and step out into the yard to fetch more wood.

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