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Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a hard book to review because it’s a hard book to define. Part adventure, part food writing, and part romance, this epistolary novel is as complex as the dinners Wedge creates, as beautiful as the love that grows, and as bittersweet as the ending. Tears weren’t expected in a story about a chef creating new meals for a group of pirates every week, but they came all the same.
I was madly, head-over-heels in love with Hannah Mabbot from 2% into the book when she broke into a dinner party, stepped onto the dining table, and then delivered the greatest line in bookdom:
“‘Tell the devil to keep my tea hot. I’m running late.’ Then she fired point-blank, without mercy or provocation, into [Ramsey’s] defenseless body.”
Done. Eli Brown now owns my heart.
Mabbot loots the house, taking Ramsey’s chef, Wedgwood, in the pillaging. She’s decided a captain should have some perks over the rest of a crew, starting with a gourmet Sunday dinner. This sets up a wonderful take on the traditional Scheherazade story, with Wedge tasked to cook a completely unique meal every week in exchange for his continued breathing.
The first quarter or so mostly revolves around Wedge’s desire to escape. It does a good job of setting the scene and introducing the crew, but I was left desperately longing for more Mabbot. Wedge is mostly alone and apart from the other crew members, though he does find himself teaching Joshua, the deaf cabin boy, to read. However, after an escape attempt leaves him in worse straits than before, and yet simultaneously in the captain’s confidence, he’s able to start, if not accepting, acclimating to a pirate’s life.
This is where the action really sets in and it’s quite exciting. Ship battles featuring solar death rays and horrific storms. Flayings, a saboteur, lost limbs, explosions, women disguised as men, long-lost relatives, prison-breaks... It really swashes the buckle. Mabbot, being chased by the late Ramsey’s hired hand, (hoping to catch and deliver her to England before his crew realizes their money went with the dead,) is on a very personal quest to catch the Brass Fox and destroy quite a lot of opium along the way. The circuitous journey; winding through England,West Africa, India, the South China sea, Macau, and out to the Americas; brings treasure and triumph, even a stove for Wedge, along with bloodshed and loss. The descriptions of the locales and locals, while not always politically correct by 21st century conventions, are not to be missed.
But it’s the love in between the action pieces that really sets Cinnamon and Gunpowderapart. The narrator describes every meal with utter reverence, somewhere between lust and religious devotion. If anything, I could have done with a few more meals just for the breathtaking way each layer of flavor is described, building on the last. The continued ingenuity of Wedge in the kitchen was almost more exciting than any pirate confrontation.
There’s romantic love, too, and familial, that evolves and builds and feels very natural. And like the love inside, the book is very bittersweet coming into the final confrontation. Without spoilers, I’ll say when it ended I was so happy with a great read, but I felt as if my heart was broken, too.
However, I don’t want to leave this review on a sad note, because Cinnamon and Gunpowder is more than a tearjerker. It’s also witty and vibrant and a little crude. Instead, I would like to leave you with Owen Wedgwood: Christian, widower, and overall goodly man’s advice on how to extricate yourself from an uncomfortable situation.
“There is, no doubt, a proper and Christian response to such an offer, [to join a massive homosexual orgy,] but I was so shocked that my only thought was to excuse myself as quickly as possible. ‘Ah yes, right! Do go on without me. I have a sudden case of the shits.’”