To Topple A King

Scouring medieval London for a book of murderous (and royal) prophecy.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

In medieval london, merely speaking of the king’s demise is a crime punishable by death. Every encounter is based on mistrust, every conversation guarded. And circulating somewhere in the city is a book of 13 prophecies, each foretelling the precise time and manner of a king of England’s death. Bruce Holsinger’s new finely detailed thriller A Burnable Book brings this realm of paranoia to life.

The prophetic book at the center of the story has supposedly been written by a Roman poet during the age of Christ and only recently discovered. Shortly afterwards, it is stolen by a mysterious woman and hidden by a group of prostitutes. Everyone, it seems, is looking for the book, for the thirteenth prophecy predicts the death of the current king, Richard II, and the time it foretells is mere weeks away.

Adding intrigue is the fact that the main characters—from the famed poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower to the prostitutes roaming the “Ward of Cheap”—are actual historical figures. The plot is enough to enchant readers, but it is the authenticity and fine details of medieval life that will keep them turning pages late into the night. The 47-year-old Holsinger is a University of Virginia professor who has taught medieval literature and culture for more than 20 years. Having written three academic books in his field, this is the first time he has turned his quill to the craft of a novel—a strange experience for the precise researcher.“

I did take a few liberties with certain characters,” Holsinger admits, “but I didn’t violate any known historical facts. One character—a transvestite prostitute—I based on a historical character who was active in London and Oxford in the 1390s. I changed the character’s first name a little bit and messed around with some of the details, but I make that very clear to the reader in the historical note at the end of the book.”

As Gower searches, whispered word of the prophecies passes through London like a chill wind—and powerful men who would profit from the 19-year-old King’s death plot assassination. Some commoners do the same, including one butcher who believes he is “the kingmaker” referred to in the book’s prophecy.

These events occur “only four years after the great Rising, the Peasants Revolt,” says Holsinger, when tens of thousands of urban workers flowed in from the surrounding shires and killed a number of royal officials and almost killed King Richard. “So we are only four years out from that, and the discontent is very much a part of the urban culture of London.”

In addition to ever-present paranoia, the city exudes sorrow. Even more lives have been lost to plague than to revolution. Of Gower’s four children, only his son, Simon, survives childhood. Grief lingers in the background throughout the story, but Holsinger occasionally brings it to the fore, as when Gower finds his wife behaving strangely in the middle of the night: “She went to her knees and reached for the window. Her fingers stretched along the sill. She put her face to the bottom of the opening. Her cheek moved slowly along the rough board. I watched her, the strange sweeping movements of her hands as they whisked from wood to her face, as she sniffed like some chained lunatic at her fingers and palms. It came to me then, the meaning of Sarah’s actions. She was gleaning the dust of our daughter. Discovering those places where Bet’s hands had played, gathering the last particles of her skin, the final remnants of her scent as they lingered on the windowsill.” 

The story itself is engrossing, but Holsinger’s real strength lies in his portrayal of a London far different from the gloried modern capital it has become. “Medieval London was actually three cities,” says Holsinger, that formed one metropolis. In his research, Holsinger discovered new facets of the period that had been foreign to him. He researched details like the lingo of 14th-century prostitutes and the types of saddles used on horses in the era. It’s these myriad little particulars that imbue his novel with veracity.

But, says Holsinger. “It’s a thriller after all, not a work of history,” and his hope is that readers will know “they’ve gotten a great story.”A Burnable Book comes out just as interest in medieval culture is exploding. When Holsinger taught a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction,” more than 20,000 students enrolled worldwide.All those students, plus readers of A Burnable Book, will be thrilled to hear Holsinger is working on a sequel. But he’ll only give one tantalizing hint about its plot: It involves the beginning of gun violence in the Western world. Consider that his fourteenth prophecy.

More picks for your summer reading list: 

Factory Man, by Beth Macy
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning
Richmond Noir, by A. Blossom and others
The Mathews Men, by William Geroux
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