Christie Dickason,
The Firemaster's Mistress
(Harper, 2008)

If you want to experience life in England in the reign of James I without the discomfort of outdoor privies, this book certainly fits the bill.

Christie Dickason has a knack for descriptive writing that transports us to the filth and squalor that is so often erased in movies about such a period. From the opening pages, you feel you are there watching events unfold.

Kate Peach is one of the most authentic characters in the current trend of historical novels. She is gritty, yet real. She is the sort of person you believe would be the ideal guide on a trip to London of the day. We get a lovely sense of place and person as we come to understand her and we learn a lot about the trade of glove-making and social standing without being preached at.

As the narrative unfolds we are drawn into her world amid some very earthy language that, in another setting, might seem uncouth -- but here it fits right in.

The hero of the piece, Francis Quoynt, also comes across as a fully-fledged person. He has the very unusual vocation as a fireworks maker, and the story ties in with the Gunpowder Plot that is still remembered each year on Nov. 5.

Weaving true events, historical characters and fictional heroes and heroines is a tricky business, but Dickason does it very well. We are constantly referring to the notes to see if the character we are rooting for actually existed or is the author's invention.

The places and events -- even that most difficult of scenario, the aftermath of an explosion -- are described with almost cinematic verve. We can feel the fear, smell the streets and feel for the characters. At the same time we learn a great deal about the period and most important we can be set to wonder about events that we thought ourselves well acquainted with.

The great tests for historical fiction are credibility, emotion and education. This book fulfills all of these in a great thriller. In addition you get -- just like the DVD extras -- historical notes and suggestions for further reading.

review by
Nicky Rossiter

13 December 2008

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