The Book of Fires, by Jane Borodale
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
In 1752, 17-year-old Agnes Trussel, an English country girl, finds herself pregnant after she is raped by a boy in her village. Ashamed and horrified by her predicament, she finds herself in a position to steal some gold coins from a dead neighbor and flees to London to prevent any shame from falling on her poor family.
On the way to London she meets a pretty young prostitute, Lettice Talbot, who offers Agnes to get her life started in London. Naive and ignorant, Agnes agrees to meet Lettice later on at her boarding house (nee brothel). However, alone in confusing and very dirty London, she gets lost. As night nears, she finds herself wandering the streets, desperate, freezing, and hungry.
She sees a sign advertising help wanted at a house and knocks on the door. The house belongs to Mr. J. Blacklock, who makes fireworks and is mourning his dead wife. Blacklock soon takes Agnes under his wing as his apprentice.
Many other characters feature in the book--the other servants in Blacklock's house and Cornelius Soul, who provides the gunpowder for the fireworks. Agnes fixes on Mr. Soul is the solution to her problems, but he is not as she thought he would be.
At times this book was a bit slow going (especially with all the detail about the fireworks making), but I enjoyed it. At the time, fireworks were not yet made in color, and it is the quest of color that fascinates Blacklock and Agnes both, drawing them closer together.
Blacklock is an enigma, a dark and brooding character. Some of the characters were not drawn as fully as they could have been. But the amount of research Borodale must have had to do is astounding. The list of references is impressive. She effectively captures the cadence of dialogue, food, setting, and habits of the British in the 18th century. What a lack of options an unmarried pregnant woman had in those days...and telling anyone that she was raped would have only worsened her lot. A very satisfying read!