The Firemaster is Francis Quoynt, recently returned from Flanders and dreaming of making fireworks rather than ordnance. Kate Peach was abandoned by Quoynt, then lost her entire family to plague, and has since been forced to live as a kept woman in Southwark. Now they meet again, and the circumstances are not good. Guido Fawkes and other papist hotheads are about to appear in their lives in the gaudy, conspiracy-ridden streets of Shakespeare's London.
One the fourth centenary of Guido Fawkes' attempt to blow up King James I and his parliament, here is the astonishing and never-before-told story of the infamous Gunpowder and Treason Plot. Guido Fawkes and Robin Catesby, Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon are among the historical characters that spring to life in Whitehall and the City - and the fishing village of Brighton - as a very surprising love story confounds expectations and a stunning new conspiracy theory unfolds.
I bought this book in December of 2005, and there it has sat languishing, waiting on the shelves for me to find the time to read it as I try to balance my ever growing TBR pile and juggle between library books and the books I own. And there it would probably have stayed except for the fact that I was notified that I have been selected to receive the sequel to this book, called The Principessa as part of the Harper Collins First Look program.
The thing is, if it had of just stayed there, I would have missed out on quite an entertaining read. It tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot, an event that is remembered each year in November at Guy Fawkes/Fireworks night celebrations. Given that this is an event that is still celebrated, I am somewhat surprised that I haven't come across more historical fiction about this event.
The central characters in this story are Francis Quoynt, his father Francis 'Boomer ' Quoynt, Kate Peach and Robert Cecil.
Francis has not long returned from the battlefields of Flanders, and is living with his father at Powder Mote, when he receives a request from Robert Cecil, English Secretary of State. The Quoynt family had a long history of being guns-for-hire and so Francis headed to London to see what was in store for him - not realising just how much his life was about to change. Cecil asks Francis to turn traitor, to try and infiltrate a group that was planning on trying to kill the King. The only thing that Francis needed to know was that Cecil would provide support to him secretly, but if he was caught, there would be a chance that he would not be able to be saved, and would be treated as a traitor along with his accomplices. So, the world that Francis agrees to enter is one filled with subterfuge, mistrust and secrecy. This becomes even more apparent when Francis is approached by Cecil's political arch enemy and cousin, Francis Bacon, who questions whether Cecil is really acting on behalf of the King or perhaps for other, more sinister reasons.
As Francis has to learn to walk the fine line between becoming embroiled in a dangerous and treasonous plot, yet still being loyal to either Cecil or England, he is approached by Mistress Kate Peach, the former love of his life - the woman he left behind when he went to Flanders. For Kate, the intervening years have been tough. She is the only member of her family left after her village was visited by the Plague, and she now lives in the seedy Southwark area of London, making a little spare cash making gloves, but mostly being a kept woman. It seems that Kate is somehow embroiled in this plot as well, and Francis has an added thing to worry about - how to keep Kate safe and away from the noose that awaits all traitors. That is made all the more difficult when Kate has some secrets of her own.
Meanwhile, Boomer is seeing events from 20 years ago come back to haunt him, and yet, it somehow appears as though those events are somehow connected to the mess that his son has now got himself into.
It took me a little while to get into this book, but in the end I did quite enjoy it. Dickason does propose an interesting new theory on what the Gunpowder Plot was really about. To be honest, I didn't quite buy it, but it certainly is an entertaining theory if nothing else.
There are some scenes in this books that are quite graphic, including some sex scenes, a scene where a Jesuit priest is hung, drawn and quartered, and the story of what happened to Kate when her family died. The latter does go a long way towards explaining some of Kate's fears though.
One thing that I am pleased about, is that the author didn't go the most obvious route when it came to the relationship between Francis and Kate. It was quite surprising to see what did happen, but I am not going to spoil here! One thing that I will say is that by taking the option that she did, it certainly left the opportunity for a sequel more open than it may have otherwise done. Oh, and the mistress referred to in the title isn't Kate, but it's not another woman - how's that for a tease?
Overall, this turned out to be an interesting read about an interesting time in English history. I am glad that I finally read this, and I am looking forward to reading The Principessa.