The Book of Fires

Written by Jane Borodale
Review by Elizabeth Knowles

Jane Borodale’s stunning debut novel begins with that classic element of suspense, a countdown to an explosion—not so much of the pyrotechnics that fascinate and draw together the two main characters, but the birth of a bastard child. Agnes Trussel’s Sussex family ekes out a living in tough times. Rather than confess her shameful pregnancy, she runs away to London with a cache of stolen coins. Along the way she meets a helpful stranger, but by her own efforts she finds employment in the household of John Blacklock, maker of fireworks—not merely as a servant, but as his assistant.

For a variety of reasons Agnes walks in guilt. She lives with constant fear that her theft and her pregnancy will be discovered. She must conceal both from Blacklock’s other servants as well as from neighborhood merchants and strives to hide the truth of her past—even her family’s existence. The slightest mistake while filling the containers could result in destruction and instant death. Her hands may be deft, but her mind is uneasy. All the while she grows expert in her master’s most dangerous trade, and more hopeful of helping him produce rockets capable of colored fire.

Agnes is the plaything of fate, alternately enjoying good luck and bad as her swelling belly threatens both her livelihood and her life. The climactic scenes do not disappoint.

Through Agnes the author thrusts her readers into 1750s London, with atmospheric descriptions, impeccable dialogue, and gripping uncertainties. An exceptionally well-crafted novel, beautifully written.