Read the book that started the Calumny’s Republic trilogy The Bitter Trade, before Scatterwood (Book 2) is serialised at The Pigeonhole in March.
The Bitter Trade Synopsis :
I am Calumny Spinks.
Between me and the satin blue sky hangs the hempen noose.
It has swung there in the faintest of breezes, waiting for me, all my life.
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, Calumny’s desperation leads him to flee to London and 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. (Tenderfoot)
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How did this debut novel from Piers Alexander, The Bitter Trade, catch my eye out of the countless titles vying for my attention? It was the combination of the elegance of its cover art, the mention of commerce (a topic I have an instinctive interest in) and the mischievous spirit signaled by the name of its protagonist, Calumny Spinks. I’ll come back to that name in a moment.
I’ve read very little fiction set in the 1600s just after the fall of Cromwell. One does wonder why surprisingly few authors choose to set their tales in this period given it was a time of great unrest, political and religious tensions and burgeoning international commerce.
There is much to like about The Bitter Trade. Harking back to the good old fashioned adventure tale, it is populated by heroes and shady villains, and society is ruled by religion, the sword and lust. But as in all times, there are opportunities to be taken by those with wiles and an entrepreneurial spirit – enter Alexander’s protagonist, Calumny Spinks, disadvantaged by birth and station but blessed with a talent for mimicry.
Calumny comes from the Latin word calvi, meaning “to trick, deceive,”; it can also describe falsely accusing someone or quoting them out of context with the intent to do them harm.
The name Alexander has given to his protagonist, nor many other wonderful details within this novel, are by happenstance. What I particularly admired about The Bitter Trade is how this author’s wiles and own entrepreneurial spirit clearly shines through in his characters, and particularly that of his protagonist.
Calumny Spinks’ actions themselves are not always admirable, but his desire to rise above the lot history has arbitrarily assigned to him is.
But Alexander is more than simply a spinner of a good yarn, his artful prose also bears mentioning. Here, Calumny speaks of his mother and father,
“My father, while he lived…” she began, but fell silent. Though I could not wait to leave Salstead, I would miss her if I went. Her tales were raindrops on the dusty soil of my life, though Peter would always grumble at them. I could not reckon how they chose each other, the silent stone and the flickering flame.
and the village of Salstead,
The village looked like a toy dropped by a careless brat, the houses all higgle-piggle. Roofs were freshly thatched, and a stranger might have thought Salstead a pretty place. But it was filled with sharp-nosed, dead-eyed people, a suspicious wart on the soft skin of the world.
Alexander’s narrative voice remains strong throughout. He very cleverly even delivers his Afterword explaining historical inaccuracies via an omnipresent narrator.
There were occasions within this novel where events felt slightly disjointed, but this was a small price to pay in the context of the sheer scale of the author’s story ambition.
It was hard not to be swept up by Piers Alexander’s debut novel, The Bitter Trade, a rollicking good yarn fueled by mystery and deception at every turn. This novel however is not for the faint of heart, with the violence, the bawdiness, the squalor and even the smells of the time as though in high resolution.
I look forward to reading the sequel.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
Genre: Action-Adventure, Historical, Drama, Mystery
About the Author, Piers Alexander
Piers Alexander is an author and serial entrepreneur. After a successful career as CEO of media and events companies he became a Co-Founder and Chairman of three start-up businesses. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN Factor Prize for The Bitter Trade. He is currently working on the sequel, Scatterwood, set in Jamaica in 1692.
Other reviews of The Bitter Trade
* My receiving an ebook copy of this novel from Tenderfoot via HFVBT did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.