Monday, October 20, 2014

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours/Netgalley
Read: October 12, 2014

In 1688, torn by rebellions, England lives under the threat of a Dutch invasion. Redheaded Calumny Spinks is the lowliest man in an Essex backwater: half-French and still unapprenticed at seventeen, yet he dreams of wealth and title. When his father’s violent past resurfaces, Cal’s desperation leads him to become a coffee racketeer. He has just three months to pay off a blackmailer and save his father’s life - but his ambition and talent for mimicry pull him into a conspiracy against the King himself. Cal’s journey takes him from the tough life of Huguenot silk weavers to the vicious intrigues at Court. As the illicit trader Benjamin de Corvis and his controlling daughter Emilia pull him into their plots, and his lover Violet Fintry is threatened by impending war, Cal is forced to choose between his conscience and his dream of becoming Mister Calumny Spinks.

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Ask Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour coordinator Amy Bruno, acclaimed author Anna Belfrage or B.R.A.G. host Stephanie Moore Hopkins and they'll tell you my name is synonymous with one thing: coffee. I wont waste time denying it, the ambrosial beverage is my life blood, the fuel that keeps me writing reviews at all hours of the night. It's no exaggeration, I can rarely be found without a steaming hot cup at my side so when I heard author Piers Alexander had incorporated the robust bean and the coffeehouses of seventeenth century London into the plot of The Bitter Trade, let's just say I sat up and took notice. I've picked up novels on less, but few have impressed me as much as Alexander's debut. Richly atmospheric, the narrative plunges readers into the cutthroat world of England's capital, immersing them in a deliciously dark climate of suspicion and intrigue. 

Calumny Spinks, the unfortunately named son of an ill-favored union, proves a captivating and charismatic protagonist. Young though he is, the resourceful seventeen year old develops a bold, ambitious and passionate persona over the course of the narrative. A cheeky, foul-mouthed rogue with a propensity for trouble, the boy is memorable for all the right reasons and he isn't the only one. Across the board, Alexander composes a host of engaging and thought-provoking characters, individuals who illustrate what it meant to be outsiders, subject to English law but beyond its protection.

The explicitness of Alexander's language might offend more sensitive readers, but personally, I liked his wickedly sharp and biting prose. Fast-paced and quick-witted, one can't help being swept into Cal's world and the conspiratorial schemes of which he finds himself a part. There were several instances where I felt Alexander might have done more with the story, but by and large I've no significant complaints over the time I spent with his work. 

Food for thought, The Bitter Trade is set against the Glorious Revolution, a period that is not well-known this side of the Atlantic and I while I certainly appreciated the historic scope of the novel, I'm not above suggesting readers familiarize themselves with the Huguenots before delving into this debut. It is not a requirement by any means, but a basic understanding of events might prove beneficial, especially to those who've never studied the overthrow of James II.

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“Ale makes men foolish,” snapped Peter, “but coffee makes them dangerous. Do not think on it. Where merchants gather, there is knavery in the air."
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