A former co-worker first recommended Cinnamon and Gunpowder to me when I told her of my love of pirate tales. It then became a book that sat on my shelf for far too long until I decided it should be a book selection for my book club, the Modern Readers!
The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. While Wedgwood attempts to satisfy his captor with feats such as tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider, he realizes that Mabbot herself is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. But there is a method to Mabbot’s madness, and as the Flying Rose races across the ocean, Wedgwood learns to rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: a formidable giant who loves to knit; a pair of stoic martial arts masters, sworn to defend their captain; and the ship’s deaf cabin boy, who becomes the son he never had.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an incredibly fun book that is not particularly funny. Narrator Owen “Wedge” Wedgwood is press-ganged into “Mad” Hannah Mabbot’s rag tag crew of pirates with the express purpose of cooking a fine meal for pirate captain Mabbot every Sunday from whatever happens to be available in the middle of the open ocean as she continues on her journey to hunt down the elusive Brass Fox, who has been plaguing the shipping lanes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Told from the staunchly anti-pirate Wedge’s perspective through makeshift journal entries on whatever scraps of paper he can find, Cinnamon and Gunpowder focuses on his relationships with the crew, the Fox, a mute cabin boy, and the captain herself. Despite constant escape attempts, Wedge’s opinion of his fellow shipmates changes, practically against his will, and he gradually finds himself enjoying the company of his compatriots on board.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder was not the book I thought it would be and, for once, it was a very pleasant surprise instead of a disappointment. Eli Brown’s storytelling is superb and his cast of characters are richly developed and thoroughly intriguing.
This was certainly unlike any other book I’ve ever read. I did not know culinary-piracy could be a book genre, but Eli Brown seems to have made it one all his own. I was not entirely sure what to expect when it was announced as the next book club read, but after hearing “female pirate captures chef to cook for her” I thought it would provide some good laughs and be a rather light read.
Cinnamon & Gunpowder was a much more serious story than I was expecting. It took an honest look at the life of pirates, the dangers of opium addiction, and the politics and corruption of the East India (renamed Pendleton in the book) Trading Company. There were a few light moments, but after his kidnapping by Mad Hannah Mabbot, Owen Wedgewood’s life becomes extremely difficult, rather depressing, and occasionally infuriating. The story is told entirely from Wedgewood’s point of view as it consists of his musings that he writes down during his time on Mabbot’s ship. I understand that the story is told from Wedgewood’s point of view because he is most like the reader for he is taken from the comfort of his home and thrown into a world of which he knows very little. As he learns more about his captors, he begins to feel less like a prisoner and more as a member of the ship’s crew.
For me, some of the best parts were when he was describing what culinary masterpieces he was making for Mabbot and how he managed to pull them off while living aboard a pirate ship. However, I think the book could have been even more compelling and enjoyable if everything had been from Mabbot’s viewpoint. Hannah Mabbot lived a long, tortuous, complicated, exhilarating life that we only learn through about through Wedgewood, and always through his eyes, whether they be judgemental or sympathetic.
I enjoyed the story; I certainly learned quite a bit about both pirates and the British merchant aristocracy and how neither were wholly good or evil. I just would have enjoyed it more if it had been Hannah Mabbot’s diary I was reading, and not that of Owen Wedgewood.
Rating: 9 out of 10 stars
Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781250050182 • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2014 by Picador USA • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read March 2016