The Book of Fires, by Jane Borodale
(New York: Viking, 2009)
"It is 1752. Winter is approaching, and two secrets -- an unwanted pregnancy and a theft -- drive seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel to run away from her home in rural Sussex. Lost and frightened as night descends on the menacing streets of London, she is drawn to a curious sign depicting a man holding a star. It is the home of Mr. J. Blacklock, a brooding fireworks maker who is grieving for his recently deceased wife. He hires Agnes as his apprentice, and as she learns to make rockets, portfies, and fiery rain, she slowly gains the laconic Blacklock's trust. He initiates her into his peculiar art and sparks in her a shared obsession for creating the most spectacular fireworks the world has ever seen.
"But her condition is becoming harder to conceal, and through it all, the clock is ticking -- for Agnes's secret will not stay hidden forever. Soon she meets Cornelius Soul, seller of gunpowder, and she conceives of a plan that could save her. But why does Blacklock so vehemently disapprove of Mr. Soul? And what is Blacklock hiding from her? Could he be on the brink of a discovery that will change pyrotechny forever? A summer storm is brewing -- but Agnes has no idea that her mysterious mentor has been watching her, and hatching plans of his own.
"The Book of Fires vividly evokes a dark bygone world and offers a masterful portrayal of a relationship as mysterious and tempestuous as any the Brontes imagined. Jane Borodale's portrait of 1750s London is unforgettable, from the grimy streets to the inner workings of a household where little is as it seems. Beautifully written, complex and layered, The Book of Fires is a captivating debut of fireworks, redemption, and the strange alchemy that will forever change the fortunes of a young woman once bound for ruin."
"There is a regular rasp of a blade on a stone as he sharpens the knives."
If I've read a few books lately that didn't quite live up to my expectations, I had the opposite experience here. I had only a short time to visit the library and stock up on books before my latest trip so I went through my list and grabbed about the first 8 I could find. Were I been home, this might have been one of those that stayed on the shelf untouched until it was due back ... as it was, I read almost everything I bring along as choices are limited, and I'm glad I did. Agnes is such an interesting narrator, the landscape she inhabits so unusual, and the central conflict -- will Blacklock discover her pregnancy and send her away? -- so well-crafted that I was sad for the story to end. Borodale manages to make the other characters, particularly Blacklock and the other 2 house servants, Mary Spurran and Mrs. Blight, both believable in their time and engaging for a contemporary reader. Likewise, the setting is sufficiently detailed that I felt like I could picture it without being so overly so that it lost me in the descriptions. I'll be on the lookout for other works by this author.