Usually, I read a book after reading several reviews from blogging friends. But every so often I’ll end up reading a book without having read a single review, positive or negative. Although I don’t know that I prefer one method or the other, they’re definitely different reading experiences. Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an example of a book I read without having any associations with it. The Book Smugglers featured it in an “On the Radar” post, I put it on hold, I checked it out, and then it sat on my shelf until I picked it up, wanting something different to read and caught by the cover. “I’ll just read the first few chapters, to see if I like it,” I thought.
I’ll cut to the chase: I pretty much didn’t do anything else until I had finished the book. I looked up at about page 200 and tweeted wildly, and then I just read.
The story opens with the account of Owen Wedgewood, master chef and employee of the late Lord Ramsey. His employer has just been killed and he taken captive by the infamous pirate captain, Hannah Mabbot. If he cooks her a splendid meal each week, he may live. If not, he will share his master’s fate.
I loved the writing. It’s that, more than anything else, that made me keep reading until I was done. Brown manages to capture the essence of early 19th century language, without seeming stilted or dated. That is, I believed that I was reading the account of a man in 1819, but at the same time it was totally fresh and readable. Even more than that, Wedgewood’s descriptions of the meals he cooks, the way that he experiences tastes and scents, was really lovely.
And there’s a nice journey on the part of Wedgewood’s character, from ignorant and fearful to informed and courageous. He starts off as a man in many ways uncomfortable in his own skin, and ends as one who knows who he is and what he stands for. It’s a fairly predictable journey in that it’s been done many times before, but it’s nicely handled. And I, at least, liked him enough from the beginning to be invested in that joureny.
So, all of that makes me happy, plus lots of pirates and nautical life. But, as I finished reading, I found myself somewhat disquieted by the ending. It’s hard to see how else the story could have ended, and yet I was also a bit perturbed by the potential implications I saw. I think it boils down to the fact that I wish Hannah had been treated a little differently as a character; I wish we had some of her point of view not filtered through Owen’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed this book hugely and would definitely recommend it. And writing a female pirate captain is probably always going to be tricky. I think overall Brown did very well, and part of the suspense of the book is not knowing her motivations. But I do also wish that the narrative had been more open to Hannah’s voice. I wish that she had a more obvious internal journey in the way that Owen does. Our perception of her changes because his does. She herself is fairly static.
This is a complicated issue, and I’m trying to avoid making value judgements of either the book or the author. At the same time, when I thought about the book after I read it, there were enough red flags that I at least wanted to mention my reaction. And I’d love to have a discussion with other readers!
When it comes down to it, I think this is a overall a really outstanding book in so many ways–writing, zippy plot, main character’s journey. But mostly, for the space of its pages, I was transported to another world, one full of scents and tastes and colorful characters. It’s worth noting that I was completely untroubled until the very end, and even then most of my questions came when I was thinking about the book after I finished. While the story lasted, I was under its spell.
Book source: public library
Book information: Macmillan, 2013; adult