The book is peopled with a roaring cast of finely drawn and delicious characters. One of its most fascinating elements is the way the author plays with the issues of gender roles. We meet several women, Abigail, Mister de Corvis’ daughter Emilia, the leprous John Hollow, Robin Cartwright, poor Violet’s protector and Mistress Frazier, cook and leader of the watermen, who, each in her own ways is defying the conventional roles imposed on 17th century women.
Interspersed is a cracking good story about the rise of coffee house culture in London as well as a great deal of authentic detail about the rise, organisation and functioning of London craft guilds. The language is by turns funny and wry, or lyrical, such as this description of “the headless serpent of the Thames crawling crookedly between rows of streets.” London jumps out of these pages in all her warty, noisy, smelly glory. How Cal achieves at least some of his goals and Britain acquires a permanently Protestant king and government are two global themes of this ambitious first novel by Piers Alexander, but this is the least part of the feast of we are treated to in The Bitter Trade. Definitely 5*****