Cinnamon and Gunpowder: a novel

By Eli Brown.

Hannah Mabbot is a fearsome pirate, who gatecrashes Lord Ramsey’s dinner party, kills him, and abducts his chef, Owen Wedgwood. The terms of Wedgwood’s captivity are that he has to make Mabbot dinner once a week or he’ll end up sleeping with the fishes. Conditions on the ship, the Flying Rose, are not ideal for cordon bleu cookery, but Wedgwood achieves culinary magic every week, and is asked to dine with Mabbot on each occasion.

When the chef is not cooking or trying to escape, he tries to teach the deaf cabin boy, Joshua, to read and write.

The captain herself is pursuing the Brass Fox, who seems to have supernatural abilities and who, as Wedgwood finds out during the course of a failed escape attempt, is Mabbot’s son by Lord Ramsey. The target of mother and son is the Pendleton Trading Company, which is importing opium into China. (There’s a lot of “Drugs are bad, m’kay?”, and Mabbot punishes one sailor very severely for getting high.) At the same time, they are being pursued by Captain Laroche, whose ship is equipped with all manner of hi-tech gadgets.

But it turns out that the Brass Fox (whose actual name is Leighton) wants to take Pendleton over where his mother wants to destroy it. There’s a fight and the Brass Fox is killed by a stray bullet while his mother is badly wounded and subsequently nursed back to health by Wedgwood with whom she forms a personal bond.

Once Mabbot has recovered, she decides to use the cache of explosives stored in secret tunnels beneath Pendleton’s HQ to blow the place to smithereens.

In the escape, the Flying Rose has to run the gauntlet of a typhoon and the Royal Navy, and just as it seems it may be safe, Laroche captures it. However, in his moment of triumph, it turns out that Mabbot wasn’t quite as mortally wounded as it seemed, and she kills him before falling into a watery grave. The rest of the crew manage to seize Laroche’s ship and turn the tables on their attackers.

Finally, Wedgwood is deposited on the east coast of the US where Joshua is returned to his family.

At first I thought that Brown was going to avoid Americanisms because the story is about English characters, but inappropriate words, which no 19th-century Englishman probably ever used, kept sneaking in. The culminated in the neologism, “repurpose”, which (to the best of my knowledge) is a wholly 21st-century creature, and which got used three times in short, grating succession.

Just as the vocabulary was American at times, the characters were contemporary Americans pretending to be 19th-century Britons. Mabbot kept referring to Wedgwood as “Wedge” and he typically addressed her as “Hannah”. For reasons which were never wholly clear (because Wedgwood didn’t seem to be a romantic lead), the captain fell for her chef. although when they did kiss, a cannonball interrupted them and tragedy followed.

This Hollywood moment characterises a lot of the book. While large swathes would make for a dull, dull film, there is plenty of swashbuckling, and it’s hard not to suspect that Brown was writing with an eye on Hollywood. Mabbot and Wedgwood’s moment of happiness is promptly ruined; the crew of the Flying Rose is captured, but manages to escape about ten minutes later and take control of Laroche’s ship; and there’s the ending in which Wedgwood doesn’t make his way home to England, but rather to America (in red, white and blue letters).The steampunk element, Laroche’s ship, also lends itself to Hollywood with all the spectacle of pseudo-lasers and AWACS balloons.

What’s the book really about? At a guess, this is some sort of satire on corporate America and capitalism.

Brown is a decent writer and overall Cinnamon and Gunpowder is not a badly written book, but he seems to be unable to write plausible non-American characters. American readers who want pirates and romance will probably enjoy the book, but for anyone in the English-speaking world who has the slightest sense of how English people behaved in the 19th century, the tone will feel odd.

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