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The Firemaster's Mistress by Christie Dickason

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diamondlil
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The Firemaster's Mistress by Christie Dickason

Post by diamondlil » Sat November 1st, 2008, 9:46 am

Given that it is very nearly the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and I just watched a documentary on it, I thought I would repost this review:
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.

Rating 4/5
Last edited by diamondlil on Sat November 1st, 2008, 9:48 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Vanessa » Sat November 1st, 2008, 9:47 am

I've read this one - I really enjoyed it.
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Post by Perdita » Sat November 1st, 2008, 3:39 pm

I enjoyed this one too. Francis Quoynt is a brilliant character

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Post by annis » Sat November 1st, 2008, 11:00 pm

I've long been a fan of Christe Dickason since reading "Dragonriders" and "The Lady Tree" back in the day.

Francis Quoynt is a wonderful character and , even better, we get to meet him again in "The Principessa", trading wits with an Italian noblewoman who has been well versed since childhood in devious and convoluted Machieavellian politics!

I really like Kate as well - she is a cool and long-sighted character who has Francis well summed up.
Last edited by annis on Sat November 1st, 2008, 11:03 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by diamondlil » Sat November 1st, 2008, 11:11 pm

I have posted a review of The Principessa as well.
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Post by Madeleine » Sun November 2nd, 2008, 1:39 pm

I enjoyed this book, could have down without the hanging,drawing and quartering scene though - very graphic!

I have The Principessa and The Memory Palace on mount tbr.

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Post by diamondlil » Sun November 2nd, 2008, 7:21 pm

I haven't been able to get hold of The Memory Palace.

One of my libraries does have a book called Quicksilver by her.
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Post by Vanessa » Sun November 2nd, 2008, 8:49 pm

I think a lot of this author's older books are out of print now, which is a shame. I saw Tears of the Tiger on a second-hand book stall not long ago and I wish I'd picked it up! I could kick myself!
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Post by Ariadne » Sun November 2nd, 2008, 8:57 pm

Coincidentally I just started reading Indochine today. It says it was published "in different form" as The Dragon Riders in the UK. I'm curious what the differences are.

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Post by Carla » Sat February 25th, 2012, 5:55 pm

I'll add my review of The Firemaster's Mistress (I thought I'd posted it already, but I must have forgotten to).

Edition reviewed, Harper 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-156826-8. 507 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

Set in London and Brighthelmstone (modern Brighton) in 1605-1606, against the background of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, The Firemaster’s Mistress features Robert Cecil, Francis Bacon and the known members of the plot, particularly Robert Catesby and Guido Fawkes (Guy Fawkes), as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Francis Quoynt is a military explosives expert – a firemaster – newly unemployed after the end of a war abroad. Francis dreams of harnessing gunpowder not for destruction but for entertainment and delight, in the form of fireworks. He also dreams of repairing the run-down manor house, Powder Mote, where he lives with his retired father, and possibly of a reconciliation with his former lover, Kate Peach, whom he abandoned two years before. Dreams need money, so Francis accepts when the devious Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, hires him to investigate a mysterious explosion in a warehouse near London Bridge and its possible connection to some nefarious plot. But unknown to Francis, Kate Peach has been instructed to find him by her sinister protector, Hugh Traylor, for reasons unknown but unlikely to be benign. And at Powder Mote, Francis’ father Boomer Quoynt encounters a menacing new neighbour, who is clearly up to no good and whom Boomer knows has no qualms about murder. As the threads twine together, gunpowder, treason and plot, all three find themselves drawn ever deeper into a net of treachery and deception that threatens their lives, their fragile trust in each other, and the future of England itself.

Despite the title, the obligatory headless-woman-in-period-frock cover design and the somewhat breathless jacket copy (“In the midst of chaos and madness, the flame of their romance will be dangerously rekindled…..&#8221 ;) , The Firemaster’s Mistress is much more of a thriller than a romance. Kate’s romantic relationships are part of the story but not the dominant component, and the three lead characters are about equally important (No, the title doesn’t refer to Kate). For me this was a definite plus; other readers may have different views.

The Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to blow up King James I/VI* and the London Parliament (and probably a good few hundred passers by), was discovered on 5 November 1605 and is still remembered, however sketchily, in the annual Bonfire Night celebration.

The best feature of the novel for me was the period detail, covering topics as diverse as bear-baiting and the technical methods for making, mixing and storing gunpowder.
The vigorous, dangerous world of Southwark, seventeenth-century London’s red-light district, is vividly recreated in all its unsavoury glory. Teeming with thieves, whores, pimps, tavern-keepers and drunks – not to mention the shady fixers of the underworld where crime and treason merge – Southwark is no place for a respectable girl fallen on hard times. Kate Peach, alone in the world after her family died in the plague, is trying to earn a living at her craft of glove-making, but her survival in Southwark depends on the protection of the villainous Hugh Traylor and the rough friendship of the brothel-keeper Mary Frith (based on a real historical figure who was the prototype for Moll Cutpurse). Mary, a six-foot, cross-dressing, pipe-smoking dealer in stolen goods, as formidable as the bears in the next door Bear Pit and a leader among Southwark’s unofficial aristocracy, is one of the most memorable secondary characters in the novel. Hugh Traylor provides Kate with cheap lodgings and protection from the rougher criminals, but at the cost of using her rooms as a safe house for fugitive Catholics on the run from the authorities. Kate is a Catholic herself and glad to provide shelter for persecuted priests despite the risk, but she gradually comes to realise that Traylor’s motives are far from altruistic.

All three lead characters are engaging and interesting, with a variety of mysterious histories that are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. Francis needs all his wits and his firemaster’s expertise to tread the dangerous line between the plotters and the devious politicians in high office. Boomer also needs all his intelligence to unravel the deadly plot taking shape at a secluded manor near Brighthelmstone, and the professional and personal rivalry between father and son is well drawn. Kate is quietly courageous as she tries to rebuild her life within the very limited opportunities open to her. The climactic action sequence requires all three to work together, with an unexpected consequence for the relationships between them. Among the secondary characters, Robert Catesby, the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, is an extraordinary contradiction, seemingly a thoroughly nice man who is conscientiously preparing to commit mass murder.

As befits a story centred around the most infamous political plot in English history, The Firemaster’s Mistress has an intricate plot with several interlocking strands. Conspiracy theories abound regarding what “really” happened in early November 1605 and what the government of the day covered up or made up, providing fertile ground for historical thrillers. The Author’s Note at the end of The Firemaster’s Mistress says, “This story might be true”, but doesn’t outline the evidence (if any) in support. I have to say that I have considerable doubts as to whether the well-documented reproductive history of Mary Queen of Scots can really accommodate the conspiracy theory underlying The Firemaster’s Mistress, but I found the plot enjoyable enough to go along for the ride.

A helpful sketch map at the front outlines the terrain around the fictional manor of Powder Mote. It would have been interesting to have a similar map of Southwark and London showing the main landmarks at the London end of the story, though it’s possible to follow the events without one. The Author’s Note is not very detailed, but is interesting as far as it goes.

Intricate historical thriller based on an ingenious (if in my opinion rather unlikely) theory about the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.


*He was the first King James in England and the sixth King James in Scotland, hence the somewhat clumsy notation
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