The Powder of Death

Written by Julian Stockwin
Review by Myfanwy Cook

Julian Stockwin is an author usually associated with exciting adventures at sea. However, this novel focuses on a different type of voyage – a voyage of discovery. The opening scene is set in Oxford in 1261 with a discussion about a deadly secret, which a Flemish Franciscan stumbled across in China. The plot revolves around the central character Jared of Hurnwych, a blacksmith from Warwickshire, and his quest for revenge following the brutal murder of his young wife, Aldith, which leads him to undertake a pilgrimage. By using his skills as a blacksmith, he eventually arrives in Acre in 1291. Captured and enslaved, his ability at the forge enables him to survive, but also to learn about ‘huo yao’, the powder of death. Eventually he returns home, but his obsession with the possibilities of the explosive powder lead him into a partnership with Rosamunde of Coventry, whose commercial connections with Italian merchants take him to Tuscany to perfect the ‘gunne’ powder that will eventually lead him to play a vital role in King Edward III’s battle with the Scots at Stanhope.

In a novel brimful of characters, Perkyn Slewfoot stands out. This is partly because of the way in which Stockwin has used this character to paint a vivid picture of the life of a villein during the late 13th century. Another interesting feature is the way in which Stockwin seamlessly introduces the background to how the guild system worked and the craft and skills that a blacksmith had to master from the basic making of simple tools to those of the sword maker. The sea voyage from England to Malta is particularly memorable and is an excellent example of using factually historical detail to create a sense of period and atmosphere.