27 January 2010

Review: The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

In Agnes Trussel's world of 1750s Sussex, young farm girls who find themselves pregnant bring disgrace to their families and have few choices. They can marry the man, if he's single, or they can live in shame at home, forcing their parents to feed yet another baby. Agnes is determined not to harm her family's reputation or to marry the baby's father. She dreams of a third way out: running away.

While on an errand for her mother, Agnes finds a stash of gold coins. Realizing that this is her only chance, she steals most of them and journeys north to London. She is alone and in unfamiliar circumstances but is befriended along the way by the beautiful Lettice Talbot, who suggests that Agnes go to a particular lodging house in the city, where Agnes will be sure to find work.

Agnes, however, loses the address. As darkness descends on her first day in London, she is cold and scared. Fortunately, she notices a sign for a housekeeper. When Agnes crosses the threshold into Mr. Blacklock's house, she has no clue that she has entered into a world of science, intuition, and secrecy.

The Book of Fires grabs you from the very first paragraph. Jane Borodale does not shrink from describing the harsh realities of eighteenth-century England but neither does she dwell on them. Instead we see the world through Agnes, for whom death and drunkenness and hunger are everyday occurrences. But we also experience Agnes's wonder as she discovers that she has entered into the service of a fireworks maker, a pyrotechnist.

And here is the heart of the book. There is so much to learn about fireworks: grinding the chemicals just so, mixing them in the correct ratios, packing them perfectly so they will explode correctly. You can almost smell the gunpowder and see the bottles lined up on shelves and the mortar and pestles on the workbenches. You can feel the danger of fire or unexpected explosion.

Agnes was a very real character for me. She is fairly naive, but, after all, she grew up on a poor farm and knew nothing of the wider world. Yet she is smart and capable and concentrates on learning her new trade, all the while dreaming of fanciful solutions to her unwanted pregnancy. Blacklock is more of a mystery to both us and to Agnes, and his secrets are revealed slowly.

I'd like share a couple of quotations, so you can get a sense of Borodale's writing style. Blacklock, just after he has met Agnes:

"The world is awash with claims for knowledge." He smiles grimly. "Knowledge is like time: it forges a way forward but must look back over its shoulder to remember where it has come from. The only certain way to forge new understanding is to carry out investigations for oneself." (p. 73)
Agnes discussing colors with Blacklock:
"Well . . . what about a green fire, sir? As green and poisonous as the feathered woodpecker in the pear tree at home, the unearthly bigness of its head tipping and battering at the bark for grubs. Or as green as soap made with Barbary wax, or early gooseberries with the June sun going through them. I'd want to see yellow! Scarlet, sir!" (p. 212)
My only complaint about the novel is that I think it begs for an epilogue. On the other hand, perhaps we'll be lucky enough to get a sequel.

Jane Borodale has a website that includes a biography and an interesting book trailer/interview video.

The Book of Fire at Powell's
The Book of Fire at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780670021062
Challenges: New Author, Historical Fiction, Global, 100+, 2010
YTD: 9
Source: Review copy (see review policy)
Rating: B+


Julie P. 1/27/10, 7:27 AM  

I think we pretty much agreed because if I gave a rating system, it would be a B+ too. I really liked it although I did have a few problems getting into the descriptive writing up front. I definitely liked it more when Agnes reached London!

A sequel would be fantastic and I'd definitely read it!

Quick question: Did you read YEAR OF WONDERS? I can't remember.

Beth F 1/27/10, 7:32 AM  

No , I haven't yet read Year of Wonders. I own it. I'll try to read it in Feb. or March.

Nise' 1/27/10, 7:46 AM  

Sounds like one I would read. Great review.

Serena 1/27/10, 7:50 AM  

Sounds like a good book. Thanks for the honest review.

Molly 1/27/10, 8:02 AM  

Great review - I particularly like the quote on knowledge! If this is indicative of her writing style, then this would be a book for me :)

Hazra 1/27/10, 8:22 AM  

The first book that popped into my mind when you talked about this book was Jane Eyre. Maybe it's because all my girlfriends are urging me to read it, but I seem to see Jane Eyre everywhere! Thanks for the review, and I loved the quotes!

Beth F 1/27/10, 8:25 AM  

Hazra, you wouldn't be the first to make the comparison to Jane Eyre. And that may be one of the reasons why I really liked BOOK OF FIRE.

Michelle 1/27/10, 8:30 AM  

This sounds really interesting. Definitely not your usual 18th-century novel of England.

And, I agree with others. That's a great quote on knowledge.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) 1/27/10, 10:06 AM  

I haven't heard of this one before. Any book that leaves you begging for a sequel sounds good though!

Aarti 1/27/10, 10:43 AM  

Wow, REALLY different than the last review I read for this book! I am interested in reading it but I read so many books set in the time period and location (Georgian England) that I am trying really hard to branch out! So tempting, though...

Gerbera Daisy Diaries 1/27/10, 11:13 AM  

I saw this at Barnes and Noble just last week on their "new books" shelf -- I was instantly curious -- now I'm glad to know it's worth putting on HOLD at the library.

I've read Year of Wonders and loved it. As I do all of G. Brooks books.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 1/27/10, 11:16 AM  

This sounds like a really different story and a good one as well. I enjoyed your thorough review Beth; Thanks

(This one arrived by mail on Monday).

Andi 1/27/10, 11:47 AM  

It seems this book is popping up everywhere I go lately! I hadn't looked into it very much, so I appreciate your review. The premise sounds great, and the fireworks info sounds pretty cool, too.

Anonymous,  1/27/10, 11:53 AM  

Great review. I already have this on my wishlist.

nomadreader 1/27/10, 12:27 PM  

I really want to read this one! I've read a few negative reviews, so I'm glad to hear you liked it.

bermudaonion 1/27/10, 12:44 PM  

Between you and Julie today, I really want to read this one!

Holly 1/27/10, 12:48 PM  

Sounds really interesting. The pregnant girl flees to London sounds reminiscent of Clare Clark's Nature of Monsters only this one looks like it continues with a storyline that is a lot more interesting and better written (didn't really care for Nature of Monsters at all).

I just finished Jane Eyre and can see where the comparison comes from there. I'll definitely have to check this one out :)

Anonymous,  1/27/10, 1:29 PM  

This book is everywhere right now!

serendipity_viv 1/27/10, 1:38 PM  

This sounds like a fascinating read. I really want to read it now. Great review, you had me desperate to read it once she became the housekeeper.

Nicole, The Book Lover 1/27/10, 6:07 PM  

It sounds as though I have a new book for my "To Be Read" list.
Thanks for the review!
Nicole @ Books, Books Everywhere

Amused 1/27/10, 6:41 PM  

Wow I got a free copy a few months ago and all of sudden everyone's reviewing it. I better read this one soon. It sounds great!

Melody 1/27/10, 6:56 PM  

I'm definitely adding this onto my wishlist! The cover is gorgeous too!

Esme 1/28/10, 12:44 AM  

Please stop by for an award.

beth 1/28/10, 3:09 AM  

This looks interesting. Maybe I'll pair it with the YA book about a firework maker that came out a few years ago, if I can remember more details.

Off to add to my TBR list.

Jan von Harz 1/28/10, 5:18 AM  

Beth, I so enjoy visiting and reading your reviews, they are so insightful. Please stop by as I have nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger award.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 1/28/10, 9:30 PM  

I like a novel that I learn something from, in addition to being entertained. The history of fireworks wraaped in a narrative ... I like the sound of this!

Jenners 1/28/10, 9:43 PM  

I don't think I've ever come across a book that involved fireworks before.

And it is always great when a book leaves you wanting more ... unless you never get it.

Anonymous,  1/29/10, 1:02 AM  

Looks great! And the fireworks lesson would be interesting. Great review.

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