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