Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown, is an adventure novel featuring as its main character Owen Wedgewood, the head cook from a country manor. It’s told as a series of diary entries. When the story opens, Wedgewood is being held captive on a pirate ship captained by Hannah Mabbot. Mabbot stormed the manor where he worked, killed his beloved master in front of him, and took Wedgewood as prisoner. Once he is on board, she insists that he cook a gourmet meal for her once a week as captain’s prerogative; otherwise he will be thrown overboard. Much of the early part of the novel is taken up with his attempts to source ingredients and work out how to use the inadequate equipment to meet her demands, though eventually the story broadens out and he gets caught up in a much larger overall plot. Overall, I enjoyed this story a great deal – though I do have a few grumbles. I’ll get those out of the way first.
Firstly, there were a few rather odd tonal choices in the writing. It was difficult to tell when this was set. It seems to be drawing on the depiction of pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (a weird thing for there to be a golden age for), but set some time between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the start of the First Opium War, which are both about a hundred years too late. There’s just enough mention of real world events for me to feel like the story was missing the mark with its time period, rather than that it was set in the timeless world that so many pirate stories inhabit. Because this is clearly intended as an adventure story and not serious historical commentary, I did my best not to think about this, but I can’t really help it. I want historical fiction – even things like this which can only loosely be considered historical fiction – to be set in a specific time frame, so my brain is constantly scrabbling for clues. Similarly, the author used American rather than British English – which wouldn’t bother me, except that this is told through Wedgewood’s own diary and he’s just so proud of being English. Every time the author wrote “pants” where he clearly meant “trousers”, I was pulled out of the story. Even the use of Owen, which is a Welsh rather than an English name, seemed rather off in terms of the person Brown was trying to create. All minor issues, I know, but they stopped me from properly getting swept up in the narrative.
The other thing that got on my wick was purely a personal preference thing. One of my least favourite qualities in a point-of-view character is an unwillingness to reassess based on new data. Now, this is a pretty common personality trait, so I don’t think it’s a sign of bad writing to have a character like that by any means. I just find it frustrating when we as readers can intercept and interpret information that the first person narrator is refusing to process. In this book, we can see pretty quickly that Wedgewood’s erstwhile employer, Ramsey, was not a good man and is by no means blameless in his dispute with Captain Mabbot – but by the middle of the book, Wedgewood has still not budged despite the mounting stack of evidence against Ramsey. This is entirely personal preference, but if a book has a first person narrator, I like them to be is reflective and analytical. When Wedgewood does eventually start to reconsider his views, it is far into the book, and I think it all comes together in a bit too much of a rush.
My nitpicking about this book’s faults aside, I enjoyed it tremendously. I mean, for a start, it was a relief to read something that was so much fun after making it through a 600 page doorstopper about Soviet dissidents in midcentury Russia. I love cooking, and I thought this book was written with a real enthusiasm for food. It was a lot of fun to read about someone trying to coax delicious meals out of mysterious and limited ingredients. At one point, he salvages spices from a bowl of potpourri because there’s no other way for him to flavour the meals. The cooking scenes are described in enjoyable detail without getting tedious, and the quest for ingredients being such a driving force means that this doesn’t feel too clichéd or repetitive – a hard task in the rather crowded pirate story field. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read an adventure story that was so much about food and cooking – which is surprising, when you think about it, since so many of those stories take place in settings where access to food is scarce and therefore likely to be a preoccupation for its characters. Anyway, it made for a very enjoyable change.
More than that, in the moments where I was able to truly engross myself in the story, it was a real page turner. Though it takes a while for the overarching plot to take over from Wedgewood’s cooking and bumbling attempts at escape, I thought it was compelling and the action scenes were done very well. What would a pirate novel be without some swashbuckling, after all? I often find it difficult to follow fast-paced action in books, but everything was clearly described here. I have some knowledge of sailing terms thanks to my childhood devotion to the Swallows and Amazons books, which helped me get the sense of the Flying Rose fairly quickly, but I think everything is laid out clearly enough that even coming in with no knowledge at all you’d be able to imagine the layout of the ship. The same goes for the general atmosphere of the book. This is another of my Strong Sense of Place reads – this time, the place being evoked is The Sea. Despite the somewhat confusing time period, the setting is definitely convincing and well-described – we get the sea in a lot of different moods and states, as well as various places on the way from England to Macau. I think Brown does a good job capturing the different locations without venturing into purple prose – a challenging task when describing places!
Although I was left unmoved by the eventual romance that develops between Mabbot and Wedgewood (this is not a spoiler; it’s in the first sentence of the blurb), that is by no means a fault of the book. I am usually left unmoved by romantic subplots, after all. The friendship and reluctant respect that develops between them was enjoyable to read – no love-at-first-sight, no immediate cameraderie, but enough in common that it’s believable that they would eventually get on. Because of the mostly frivolous nature of the plot, I didn’t mind too much about the fact that it was a captor-captive relationship – it was handled lightly in keeping with the tone of the book. It’s also fairly rare to read a romance between middle-aged people, so that was a refreshing change of pace. Wedgewood’s other key relationship – with ship’s boy Joshua, who ends up working as a kitchenhand – is also well-depicted. In fact, that was the more interesting relationship to my mind. There are communication difficulties that have to be overcome – Joshua is deaf and uses sign language, which Wedgewood has never encountered before and initially disapproves of. As they work together to overcome these issues, a real bond forms between them and I think it’s a highlight of the book.
While this was definitely not the best book I’ve read this summer, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and if you are in the market for an adventure story set on the high seas, I recommend this one!