Review: The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

Agnes Trussel is a seventeen year old girl whose life is thrown into turmoil when she discovers she is pregnant and runs away to London to start a new life.  In London she is lucky enough to find employment as an assistant to the firework maker John Blacklock but as she desperately tries to hide her pregnancy from everyone around her, she starts to realise that she’s not the only one with secrets…

When I first heard about this book last year I was immediately interested in reading it but eventually decided to give it a miss – until I saw that it had been shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers.  Of course, being shortlisted for an award doesn’t guarantee that a book will be good, but it does usually mean that there will at least be something different or special about it that makes it worth reading.

Well, it was worth reading, but I did also have a few problems with the book – the first being that it’s written in the first person present tense.  There have been a few books written in the present tense that I’ve enjoyed, but usually I find it distracting – and that was the case here.  I also found it difficult to connect to any of the characters, even Agnes herself.  It wasn’t that they were badly drawn or uninteresting – Cornelius Soul the gunpowder seller, Mrs Blight the housekeeper and the mysterious Lettice Talbot wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel – I just couldn’t engage with them or care about them very much.  When I read historical fiction I like to feel as if I’ve been transported back in time and as if I’m there experiencing things along with the characters.  Unfortunately I didn’t feel any of that with this book.

The plot itself was interesting enough.  I struggled with the opening chapters -which described the slaughter of a pig in an unnecessary amount of detail – but after that, when Agnes arrived in London I started to enjoy the story more.


Picture by Jon Sullivan in the public domain

The descriptions of firework making were fascinating.  It was particularly interesting to learn about the early experiments and research that would eventually lead to the discovery of coloured fireworks.

“You imagine colours vividly,” he says.
“I do, sir.” I reply. “It is…almost as though I feel them as a sense of touch or taste when I am looking.”
He looks up at me beside him. I am startled to see how his eyes are tight with excitement. A hope flares up in me.
“Have you attempted a blue, Mr Blacklock?” I whisper.

Despite the negative points I mentioned above, I kept on reading to the last page because I wanted to know how the story ended – and I was rewarded with a surprising ending that I hadn’t been expecting.  In fact, the final few chapters were great and made me glad I’d persevered with the book.

Would I recommend it?  I’m not sure – there are much better historical fiction novels out there in my opinion – but if it appeals to you then give it a try and see what you think.

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9 comments

  1. It’s the firework connection that makes me want to read this book. Pretty flimsy reason really, but I do like fireworks! I think it would be interesting to read about them in a historical context.

  2. I agree with you about first person present tense. I suppose the goal is to make the story more urgent and immediate, but I find that the opposite tends to happen. It pulls me out of the narrative.

    1. It made me feel detached from the story. I think I would probably have enjoyed the book a lot more if it hadn’t been in the present tense.

  3. I am a thirteen year old girl and I highly recomend this book to anyone who wishes to read it. I purchaised it from a second hand book shop, but it will never return there, it is now a firm favorite!

    Takeing the liberty of asumeing, that the Lady who wrote the riview was an adult. I feel that maby you didn’t like it because you were not the audience the book was aimed at?

    Although possibly I am not generaly considered the ‘typical’ teenage audience, and should go away and be quiet. ( Because I read Great Expectations, and Oliver twist, when I was 10.And have also read the entire works of shakespeare, bar a few sonets, from cover to cover. And am currently reading The Tennant of Wildfell hall. So realy I should Keep my opinions to myself, because my view of ‘Teenage Audiences’ is probably slightly warped…)

    1. I don’t think this was actually marketed as a young adult book, but you could be right that younger readers would enjoy it more. I’m glad to hear you liked it better than I did.

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