I recommend Cinnamon and Gunpowder for your “beach reads” list this summer. It features kidnapping, pirates, adventure and battle on the high seas with a twist. The pirate who does the kidnapping and spreads terror throughout the British Empire is a woman — Mad Hannah Mabbot, a fearless captain with a bounty on her head. Our narrator is a chef — Owen Wedgwood, kidnapped from Lord Ramsey’s home in August of 1819 when Hannah arrives unexpectedly and kills Ramsey right before his eyes. Owen tries to escape but ends up a prisoner on The Flying Rose, Hannah’s pirate ship. Her crew is a motley bunch from all over the world, dangerous and loyal to their captain. While Owen plots to find a way off the ship and back home, he has to keep himself alive by agreeing to Hannah’s deal: cook her a delicious dinner every Sunday or else.
The novel brings together two exciting plot lines. First there is Owen’s story — his desire to escape and the challenges of preparing haute cuisine on a pirate ship with limited ingredients and utensils at his disposal. It’s like Chopped or Iron Chef on the high seas, and Eli Brown does a wonderful job of describing Owen’s ingenuity in making succulent dishes from meager means. Owen is at heart an artist, and as much as he hates the life he now has, he rises to the challenge and even finds himself occasionally enjoying it. Moreover, he finds himself learning more about Hannah, and though he still wants to escape more than anything, he cannot help but be attracted to her. His feelings will become more conflicted as he learns about her own background and her ultimate motivations in chasing after a fellow pirate known as the Bronze Fox.
Second, there is the story of international intrigue and power struggles in the early 19th century. The fictional Pendleton Trading Company (a stand in for the real British East India Company) controls the lucrative trade involving tea, spices, slaves and opium. The British navy and privateers protect the company, of which Lord Ramsey was CEO, and thus ensure British supremacy in trade and power over the seas. Yet, in order to keep Britain in tea and its ruling classes wealthy, the company has enslaved native peoples in Asia and forced them to grow opium instead of food. Native peoples are starved and enslaved while Lord Ramsey and the company (and England) grow richer and richer. Owen has only a vague understanding of all of this when the story begins. He had been happy working for Lord Ramsey, whom he considered a respectable and noble gentleman. As Hannah and the pirates of The Flying Rose sail the trade routes in pursuit of the Bronze Fox, they attack Pendleton ships, taking their goods and treating their crews to various types of justice, while Owen learns some ugly truths about the world and about the source of the comforts he had enjoyed before being kidnapped.
The characters Brown has created for this novel are colorful and delightful. Hannah’s right hand man Mr. Apples is enormous and enjoys knitting; young Joshua, who is deaf, becomes a sort of sous chef to Owen; Feng and Bai are Shaolin trained fighters whose devotion to Hannah and to each other is absolute; and Laroche, the mercenary Frenchman, is a sort of mad scientist whose specialty is developing weapons of mass destruction. He is keen on getting Hannah for his own personal reasons, as is the Bronze Fox. Most fun, though, is the relationship between Hannah and Owen. She is a tough and bold leader whose own backstory is not unlike Owen’s. Owen is temperamental artiste who is a bit of a prude but not without his charms. The two of them together make for an odd couple but one that you want to see succeed.
The adventures are thrilling and action-packed (and often quite violent), and will most likely have you rooting on Mad Hannah Mabbot as she kicks ass on the high seas. The ending surprised me a bit, but it’s wonderful all the same.