12 February, 2010

The Firemaster’s Mistress, by Christie Dickason. Book review

Edition reviewed, Harper 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-156826-8. 507 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

Set in London and Brighthelmstone (modern Brighton) in 1605-1606, against the background of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, The Firemaster’s Mistress features Robert Cecil, Francis Bacon and the known members of the plot, particularly Robert Catesby and Guido Fawkes (Guy Fawkes), as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Francis Quoynt is a military explosives expert – a firemaster – newly unemployed after the end of a war abroad. Francis dreams of harnessing gunpowder not for destruction but for entertainment and delight, in the form of fireworks. He also dreams of repairing the run-down manor house, Powder Mote, where he lives with his retired father, and possibly of a reconciliation with his former lover, Kate Peach, whom he abandoned two years before. Dreams need money, so Francis accepts when the devious Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, hires him to investigate a mysterious explosion in a warehouse near London Bridge and its possible connection to some nefarious plot. But unknown to Francis, Kate Peach has been instructed to find him by her sinister protector, Hugh Traylor, for reasons unknown but unlikely to be benign. And at Powder Mote, Francis’ father Boomer Quoynt encounters a menacing new neighbour, who is clearly up to no good and whom Boomer knows has no qualms about murder. As the threads twine together, gunpowder, treason and plot, all three find themselves drawn ever deeper into a net of treachery and deception that threatens their lives, their fragile trust in each other, and the future of England itself.

Despite the title, the obligatory headless-woman-in-period-frock cover design and the somewhat breathless jacket copy (“In the midst of chaos and madness, the flame of their romance will be dangerously rekindled…..”), The Firemaster’s Mistress is much more of a thriller than a romance. Kate’s romantic relationships are part of the story but not the dominant component, and the three lead characters are about equally important (No, the title doesn’t refer to Kate). For me this was a definite plus; other readers may have different views.

The Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to blow up King James I/VI* and the London Parliament (and probably a good few hundred passers by), was discovered on 5 November 1605 and is still remembered, however sketchily, in the annual Bonfire Night celebration.

The best feature of the novel for me was the period detail, covering topics as diverse as bear-baiting and the technical methods for making, mixing and storing gunpowder. The vigorous, dangerous world of Southwark, seventeenth-century London’s red-light district, is vividly recreated in all its unsavoury glory. Teeming with thieves, whores, pimps, tavern-keepers and drunks – not to mention the shady fixers of the underworld where crime and treason merge – Southwark is no place for a respectable girl fallen on hard times. Kate Peach, alone in the world after her family died in the plague, is trying to earn a living at her craft of glove-making, but her survival in Southwark depends on the protection of the villainous Hugh Traylor and the rough friendship of the brothel-keeper Mary Frith (based on a real historical figure who was the prototype for Moll Cutpurse). Mary, a six-foot, cross-dressing, pipe-smoking dealer in stolen goods, as formidable as the bears in the next door Bear Pit and a leader among Southwark’s unofficial aristocracy, is one of the most memorable secondary characters in the novel. Hugh Traylor provides Kate with cheap lodgings and protection from the rougher criminals, but at the cost of using her rooms as a safe house for fugitive Catholics on the run from the authorities. Kate is a Catholic herself and glad to provide shelter for persecuted priests despite the risk, but she gradually comes to realise that Traylor’s motives are far from altruistic.

All three lead characters are engaging and interesting, with a variety of mysterious histories that are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. Francis needs all his wits and his firemaster’s expertise to tread the dangerous line between the plotters and the devious politicians in high office. Boomer also needs all his intelligence to unravel the deadly plot taking shape at a secluded manor near Brighthelmstone, and the professional and personal rivalry between father and son is well drawn. Kate is quietly courageous as she tries to rebuild her life within the very limited opportunities open to her. The climactic action sequence requires all three to work together, with an unexpected consequence for the relationships between them. Among the secondary characters, Robert Catesby, the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, is an extraordinary contradiction, seemingly a thoroughly nice man who is conscientiously preparing to commit mass murder.

As befits a story centred around the most infamous political plot in English history, The Firemaster’s Mistress has an intricate plot with several interlocking strands. Conspiracy theories abound regarding what “really” happened in early November 1605 and what the government of the day covered up or made up, providing fertile ground for historical thrillers. The Author’s Note at the end of The Firemaster’s Mistress says, “This story might be true”, but doesn’t outline the evidence (if any) in support. I have to say that I have considerable doubts as to whether the well-documented reproductive history of Mary Queen of Scots can really accommodate the conspiracy theory underlying The Firemaster’s Mistress, but I found the plot enjoyable enough to go along for the ride.

A helpful sketch map at the front outlines the terrain around the fictional manor of Powder Mote. It would have been interesting to have a similar map of Southwark and London showing the main landmarks at the London end of the story, though it’s possible to follow the events without one. The Author’s Note is not very detailed, but is interesting as far as it goes.

Intricate historical thriller based on an ingenious (if in my opinion rather unlikely) theory about the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

*He was the first King James in England and the sixth King James in Scotland, hence the somewhat clumsy notation


Susan Higginbotham said...

That one sounds interesting!

Marg said...

I read this book a couple of years ago. I found it to be really readable, but yes, agree that the suggested solution to who orchestrated the Gunpowder plot to be a bit unlikely. My review is here

I much preferred this book to the sequel, which took place in a made up country.

Carla said...

Susan - it's well worth a read.

Marg - Great review, and thanks for the link. I read your review when you wrote it, and bumped the book a bit further up my list on the strength of it. I'm glad it's not just me who thought the 'solution' was a bit far-fetched! I haven't read the sequel. Why is it in a made-up country?

Marg said...

I don't know why she set it in a made up country. She made it so that it was at the crossroads of lots of different places - Italy and a few others towards the east.

Carla said...

Marg - that sounds potentially very interesting, but a bit of a stretch to call it historical fiction :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

The Elizabethean Age seems quite popular these days; there's a bunch of Fantasy novels set there. With extra fairies. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Sounds like it's worth a read, and I like the names - Boomer Quoynt takes some beating!

Carla said...

Gabriele - this is a bit later than the plethora of Tudor novels, but the fashion probably didn't hurt. Fantasy novels with fairies? I know Speser wrote The Faerie Queen, but still...

Kathryn - doesn't it just? :-) He is actually called Francis like his son, but acquired the nickname in the course of his profession. The author's note mentions a Francis Quoynt in one of Shakespeare's plays as part of her inspiration, but I haven't got around to looking up the quote.

Bernita said...

Am curious how Robert Cecil is portrayed.

Rick said...

I do like the idea of an early 17th century explosives expert. 'Boomer' indeed! (It happens to be USN argot for sailors aboard ballistic missile subs.)

It is probably inevitable that a thriller is going to use some strained conspiracy theory as its gimmick. Mary's reproductive history, huh?

Well, I suppose James might really have been, as Henri IV said, 'the son of David,' but how would you ever prove that? The only other scenario I can think of is that Mary had a living child by Bothwell, who wants to bump off half brother James to take the throne.

Is the bomb really intended to blow up the Casket Letters? :-)

Speaking of bombs, the Stuarts had an interesting history. So far as I know of, Kirk O'Fields and the Gunpowder Plot are the first assassination attempts using explosives.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, two that come into my mind right now are the series by Marie Brennan, and Mark Chadbourn's Silver Skull that looks like a book I'll check out. :)

Annis said...

I enjoyed the character of Kate - an eminently sensible woman!

I should point out that the sequel, "The Principessa", doesn't actually have any fantasy elements, but is set in a composite Italian Renaissance principality :)

Martni Stephen does a good take on the Gunpowder Plot (with Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon at each others' throats) in his first Henry Gresham book "The Desperate Remedy"

Carla said...

Bernita - Machiavellian but not corrupt, if that makes any sense

Rick - The author has US connections, so maybe the name was a nod to the USN?
Nope, not James, and not a half-brother, and not the Casket Letters :-)
I hadn't thought of that until you mentioned it, but you may well be right. Why gunpowder for the Stuarts, I wonder? In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories someone comments about Russian anarchists that they must have '....a fiery crash of ruin....' to draw attention to themselves and their power, or words to that effect. Attention-seeking? Wasn't an earlier James Stuart killed by an exploding cannon? Maybe the Stuarts' assorted enemies knew their history.

Gabriele - thanks; not sure those are for me :-)

Annis - agreed, I liked Kate's character, and she definitely made the sensible choice in the end :-) That's one of the Henry Gresham books I haven't read, so I may have a look at it - thanks. One can never have too many conspiracy theories :-) Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon are adversaries in The Firemaster's Mistress, too. Gresham always strikes me as a sort of 17th century James Bond, with plots to match.

Rick said...

Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond was explicitly a riff on James Bond - the period sort of lends itself to that.

Carla said...

I wonder why? There were plenty of plots and counter-plots and opportunity for unlikely derring-do in other ages, after all. Perhaps because Walsingham is credited with having invented the Secret Service, so naturally the first James Bond is attached to the same era?

Rick said...

Even in historical accounts the period does seem unusually rich in covert doings. Partly, perhaps, Renaissance fascination with realpolitik, and the spread of information so that kings and ministers didn't have to re-invent this stuff ad hoc. Think Catherine de Medici and her contemporary reputation.

But even more the Reformation, because it was a time of ideology and conflicting loyalties, fertile ground for covert activity. And it works better in story terms, too.

Compare to earlier, say the Wars of the Roses. Plenty of divided loyalties, but either straightforward and familial, or personal and usually venal. Great story material, but for a different kind of story.

Fast forward to the 18th century, and once the Jacobite thing runs down there is little place for a James Bond type until the French Revolution puts ideology in play again.

Rick said...

I should say, on a different note, that I have no problem in principle with a made up Italian principality (that sounds funny!). Interweaving it into an otherwise real world, rather than a parallel, is a little dicier.

Though I suppose you could say that there was such a welter of little Italian states that slipping one in is not much different than slipping in an invented country house.

Carla said...

Rick - I hadn't associated James Bond types specifically with a clash of ideologies. You're right that a clash of ideologies, as opposed to the dynastic squabble, lends itself to a different type of story.

I haven't read the sequel so I can't comment on the invented Italian city-state. I guess it would depend on how much of a role it is given in the politics of the day. A bit-part player is relatively easy to accommodate, because it wouldn't noticeably upset the known political balance. Inventing a major-league power - another Venice, say - is more problematic. In the same way as it's fairly straightforward to invent a fictional Lady Mary Whatshername and integrate her into real events at the court of your choice, but a great deal more difficult to invent a fictional king or queen and integrate him/her into real events.

Rick said...

Bond, the movies at least, don't do nuance, and replace ideology with Dr. Evil. But the whole modern espionage genre grew out of the Cold War, and you can't read about people like Walsingham without getting a similar flavor.

I agree with you exactly about fitting in an imaginary Italian state.

The general hist-fic rule seems to be that you can freely invent people, places, and events so long as the fairly knowledgeable reader wouldn't automatically spot the intrusion.

Expert readers will spot the intrusion, but tend to approve if it is done seamlessly.

Carla said...

On a random sample of two, the Bond books don't appear to be wildly into nuance either :-)

I think there are traces of the espionage thriller prior to the Cold War - what about John Buchan, for example? He still arguably fits with your ideology point, just that the enemy in question was different.