Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander

Main character: 17-year-old Calumny Spinks
Location: London, England
Time period:  Late 1600's
Genre: Historical Fiction

"I was born to a raging Frenchy slugabed mother, sired by a sulking silk-weaver with a battered box of secrets under his floorboards. From her I got my flaming hair, so red that the scabfaced villagers of Salstead spoke of the evil's seed, spitting in the dust for salvation when I walked past. From my father came my sharp tongue, the quick wits to talk above my station, and the shoulders to take the blows that followed."

Everything is stacked against young Calumny Spinks--despised and rejected by the villagers of Salstead for having a foreign mother, seemingly rejected even by his father, Peter, who refuses to enter Calumny's name in the guild book so that he can be apprenticed and possibly make something of his life. Peter refuses to even tell Calumny why. He's almost 17, and already his life is almost over.

Then calamity strikes, and Calumny's mother is killed by the villagers who accuse her of witchcraft. Though it is the last thing he wants to do, Peter takes Calumny to London and finds a home with others in the silk-weaver's guild. London opens a whole world up to Calumny and he soon finds himself in over his head.

This time period, well after the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy, and after the Great Fire of London, is one that I'm not all that familiar with, and I did have to periodically check Wikipedia to get my bearings. Peter was a fighter in Cromwell's army during the Civil War and his secret--one that makes him fear for his own life and for Calumny's--dates from that time. The strife between the Catholics and the Protestants is still high almost a century after Henry VIII brought the Reformation to England, with power between the two groups shifting back and forth. Peter is a staunch anti-Papist, as are many of the guild members, and chafes under the rule of a Catholic king. Religion is not the only reason to oppose the king--there are also reasons of commerce and trade. Since Calumny cannot be apprenticed as a weaver, he becomes entangled with people trying to build a coffee trade, and who therefore are seeking to overthrow King James in favor of William of Orange.

All of this scheming and politicking is complicated when read in a history book, but seen narrowly through the eyes of Calumny (who is, by the way, a very lusty young man) it flows in a way that makes sense. Everything is new to him, and he is not one to examine the morality of what he is told to do. All he wants is to become a man of position, to be called "Mister" or "Master," and so he does what he's told and adds a bit of scheming of his own.

With a vividly depicted backdrop that manages to encompass the beauty and the ugliness of its time period, I would recommend The Bitter Trade to fans of unromanticized, unsanitized historical fiction.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

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