August 13, 2013

Book Review, "Cinnamon and Gunpowder: a novel"

"Cinnamon and Gunpowder: a novel" started off really well. In a daring raid on an island off the coast of England a dashing, redheaded pirate named Hannah Mabbot kills a British noble and kidnaps his cook. The noble, Lord Ramsey, is the main stakeholder in a British trading house called "The Pendleton Company" and the nemesis of "Mad" Hannah Mabbot. This is a fascinating literary device because in a very real sense, this book opens at the end of one story and from that ending, launches into a new one. The story of Mabbot and Ramsey's tumultuous and fiery rivalry serves as a backdrop to the novel, filling in blanks and carrying the main story through passages that would otherwise fall flat. In a very real sense, this book is two stories in one, a dull, rather fanciful Stockholm Syndrome romance where a kidnapped cook gradually falls in love with his pirate captain captor, alongside a blazing Howard Zinnesque reinterpretation of the East India Trading Company's role in the slaves/silver/opium trade triumvirate that eventually resulted in the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856. Like Zinn's often creative use of "facts", Eli Brown shifts dates and technologies backwards and forwards by decades in order to tell a convincing narrative. Captain Mabbot's main rival on the sea, the Pendleton Company's Captain Larouche, pilots a ship drawn straight from the pages of countless steampunk novels, adding an almost science fiction sub plot that is just as enticing as the main story.

The first two-thirds of the book is wonderful. Judging from the cover and front materials, I expected a quirky pirate tale of culinary delights and swashbuckling hedonism. That is exactly what I got and I was thrilled. At just about the two-thirds point, however, the story takes a dark, social justice turn. As the cook becomes more intimate with his Captain and learns how deep her rivalry with Lord Ramsey really runs, we are taken on a deliberate, anti-capitalist rant of evil corporations exploiting the world's poor for power and profit. This rant sets up the justification for the explosive climax and bucolic, ironic ending that has the cook owning a tavern on Martha's Vineyard where he spends as much collecting myths of "Mad" Hannah Mabbot as he does preparing culinary delights for common sailors.