This book takes place some time after the first in the series (A Burnable Book) starring the real life medieval poet John Gower as a (probably) fictional detective. This series is based on a lot of research and historical accuracy is impressive. A possible problem with this second installment is that there is not a glossary of medieval terms or full list of sources for a reader unfamiliar to consult. The author notes that a source list accompanies the first volume, and only names those research sources most relevant to the current story. I’m familiar enough with the literature, language and history of late 1300s England that I don’t need the extra help to fully grasp the well-built world described, but another reader might. Most of the time, you might only be confused by a word like “swerver” for a page or two until the context made the meaning obvious. The story though stands on its own, and you don’t need to know the first book to follow along easily.
The plot opens with the discovery of a 16 bodies discovered in a public latrine. In addition to the apparent mass murder each victim save one has mysterious injuries. The injuries are soon determined to have been likely caused by a relatively new invention, the handgonne. The authorities call on John Gower, poet and information broker, to uncover how and why the group died. Gower is beginning to lose his eyesight, a fact that gets brought up far too often for my taste as it is not relevant to the story. I suspect because Gower’s poetry is not referenced nearly as much in this book as it was in the first, a need was felt to remind the reader that the figure was a writer. Gower, sometimes along with his friend Geoffrey Chaucer, travels around London and makes a brief visit to France investigating. Chaucer’s writing, namely the Canterbury Tales, provides background references for this story, and most directly through a sub-plot that only becomes relevant towards the end of the book when Gower figures out the mystery.
The story flips back and forth between Gower’s investigation and Stephen March, who runs a foundry and smithy. Gower and Stephen’s stories run together as two different sides of the story, and the two eventually connect. I find it interesting that the two men never actually meet, and that Stephen may never have even heard of Gower, although Gower does figure out who Stephen is and his connection to the mystery of the handgonne killings. A few characters from the previous novel make brief appearances, including Eleanor who had a major role in the first story but sadly only gets a few lines in this one.
I liked this book more than I did its predecessor because as a story it flows better between the perspectives, and the connection happens more naturally. Both are well written with a scholar’s attention to detail and if I didn’t know better, it would be really easy to mistake fictional elements for historical.