Cinnamon and Gunpowder
by Eli Brown
318 pages (hardcover)
Owen Wedgewood, chef to Lord Ramsey, spends his waking hours perfecting sauce recipes and testing the temperature of his ovens. Until the day pirates burst into the dining room right after the soup course, topple the platters of cherry-glazed roasted duck on their way to the table, murder Lord Ramsey, and carry Wedge off to sea on the Flying Rose.
His astonishing captor is Mad Hannah Mabbot, aka “Back-from-the-Dead-Red,” aka “the Shark of the Indian Ocean,” who sails the opium-flooded seas guided only by the stars and a moral compass that is, by all appearances, cracked. She has a thirst for vengeance, a sharp intellect, an iron fist, a tender heart, an alluring figure, and a highly-trained crew ready to sacrifice their last breaths at her command.
Her offer to Wedge: cook her one gourmet meal every Sunday, from whatever foodstuffs he can conjure on the ship, and she’ll let him live another week. Refuse, and he can walk the plank. Thus begins the walloping adventure that is Cinnamon and Gunpowder.
Wedge, who narrates the novel, is a serious foodie, and—perhaps deservedly—a little enamored of his own culinary skills. On the first Sunday in his new role as executive chef to the chief pirate, he serves his captor a cod fillet with all the trimmings, and is surprised when she orders him to join her at table.
Suddenly, I was ravenous. Not having touched food to my tongue all day except to sample, I allowed myself to enjoy the first real meal since my capture. I had removed the fillet from the pan while it will still glassy in the middle and it had continued to cook by its own heat to a gentle flake. Between the opaque striations, wisps of fat clung to the crisp potato breading and resolved upon the tongue like the echo of a choir surrendering to silence. The saffron warmed all together as sunlight through stained glass blesses a congregation, while the shrimp sauce waved its harlot’s kerchief from the periphery.
If he does say so himself. But Mabbot heartily agrees, leaving Wedge alive to outdo himself every subsequent Sunday. And while he’s getting creative with hardtack and limes, he’s beginning to realize that the captain is far more than a bloodthirsty pirate.
The papers would have us believe that Mabbot is, like some mythic squid, a peril that rises from the deep at random to pull ships down, a singular and senseless hazard. In fact she is but one character in a convoluted tragedy whose entire case seems to be comprised of villains. Even as we hunt the Fox, we are hunted by the navy and Laroche, who are in turn also after the Fox for undermining trade in the ports of China. The Flying Rose is a link in a chain of enmity that manacles the entire globe.
In fact, it soon becomes clear that the captain’s mission is much more justifiable than he could have anticipated, and his late master’s trading empire was a lot darker than he had realized. The more time Wedge spends with Mabbot and her crew, the more he finds his previously-untested ideals shifting to reflect the complexities of a world far bigger than his country manor kitchen.
That complexity is what makes Eli Brown a master storyteller. Hannah is a thrilling heroine, and Wedge is an endearing everyman, learning more about himself in a few months under duress than his previous decade of comfort. And the chef’s narrative voice is pitch-perfect: English, loyal, slightly superior, aghast at his circumstances but inventive in rising to the challenge, and firmly in control of his gastronomical metaphors. But the perfection of the story is how Brown combines all the plot points you want in a high seas adventure with a complex philosophical exploration that, by the last page, makes you want to take up your cutlass and shiver some evildoers’ timbers.