Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a book that kind of defies categorization. On the surface it’s historical fiction, taking place in 1819 and revolving around the era of piracy and opium trading. But it’s also an action novel, following the somewhat unhinged pirate captain Mad Hannah Mabbot and her colorful crew as they plunder and maraud upon the high seas. …But it’s also a cooking novel, with accomplished chef and now captive Owen Wedgewood having to devise delightful dishes for Mad Hannah, going into great detail as he figures out how to simmer a soup with no working stove or spices. And much like Owen’s culinary concoctions, all of these different genres are blended together in such a way that identifying the book as any one thing is kinda hard.
The year is 1819 and Owen Wedgewood, skilled and acclaimed personal chef for tea trader Lord Ramsey witnesses the brutal murder of said lord by pirate captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who then kidnaps Wedgewood, demanding that every sunday he use his culinary skills to cook a delightful meal for her. As the time of his imprisonment grows, Wedgewood learns more and more about the pirate crew, from the mute and deaf cabin boy Joshua, to the asian siblings Bai and Feng, to the lumbering giant of a man known as Mr. Apples and, of course, Captain Mabbot herself, all while the crew chases down the elusive pirate known only as the Brass Fox.
As you might have picked up, there’s a lot happening in this book. You have Owen’s imprisonment and potential escape attempts, you have the relationships and secrets between the differing crew members, you have Owen’s weekly culinary challenge, his developing relationship with Mabbot, Mabbot’s relationship with the Brass Fox, why she killed Lord Ramsey, a whole opium farming plot… there’s a LOT going on. And unfortunately, as happens with many tightly stuffed books, I didn’t care about a lot of the subplots. Or even portions of the main plot.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder just has too much going on. I was invested in Owen’s imprisonment and developing relationships with members of the crew, and loved the foody parts of the book. But whenever we’d cut back to Mabbot’s hunt for the Brass Fox and her personal vendetta against the opium trade… I just tuned out, wishing we could go back to developing our characters and Owen figuring out how to make an elegant dish out of stale wheat and eel. The book, however, was much more invested in the Brass Fox and opium plot which resulted in me being filled with boredom reading more backstory and history of opium that I just didn’t care for.
There was one other major road block when it came to this book and that was the writing itself. Cinnamon and Gunpowder is told from the point of view of Owen himself as he accounts the tale of his capture and imprisonment and the terrors he endured therein. And oh boy… Owen really is melodramatic. ::ahem::
Sleep is impossible; the swells churn my stomach, and my heart scrambles to free itself from my throat. My anxiety provokes a terrible need to relieve myself, but my chamber pot threatens to spill with every lurch of this damned craft. I use a soiled towel for my ablutions, the very towel that was on my person when I was cruelly kidnapped just days ago. To see my employer, as true and honest a gentleman as England ever sired, so brutally murdered, without the opportunity to defend himself, by the very criminals he had striven so ardently to rid the world of, was a shock I can hardly bear. Even now my hand, which can lift a cauldron with ease, trembles at the memory.
The whole book is written this way. It makes sense for Owen’s character as he’s a fairly upper class prissy english cook, but there were many times I almost quit the book due to the writing style. The only place where the writing style seemed to properly mesh for me was when he’d describe the dishes he was cooking. The flowery descriptors really helped the reader visualize all aspects of the cooking process and I found myself readily being able to imagine how a dish would have tasted by the time I was done reading.
So if I didn’t care about the main pirate plot and I didn’t like the writing style, why bother finishing the book? Well, for all of its faults, and there are many, I really enjoyed the characters of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. I liked the twins Bai and Feng, I liked Joshua, I loved Mr. Apples, I liked the over-talkative cook that Owen replaces and I loved Mabbot herself. Watching Owen grow from melodramatic Englishmen to honorary pirate was fun! Seeing the other pirates grow and change due to his sensibilities was well written and great character development. Everything relating to pure pirate life and the reasons for why everyone joined up with Mabbot had me eagerly reading each page. And how often do you see the pirate/kidnapped trope reversed so that the pirate is the lady and the trembling delicate flower is the man? That reversal alone made the book worth reading through.
I’m not entirely certain who this book is for. Romance readers will be frustrated at how little romance is in it, action readers will be bored by Owen, and foodies will be bored with how few and far between the cooking sections are. Historical fiction fans might like it, but if you’re knowledgeable of the time period it takes place in I’m not certain the story will withstand such scrutiny. It has some great moments but they’re just that, moments. The majority of the book I found myself wishing we were ignoring this Brass Fox business and just telling a fun tale about a kidnapped chef stolen away by pirates.
[Cover art designed by Jennifer Carrow and illustrated by Mark Strutzman]