Thursday, 24 July 2014

If they started giving Michelin stars to pirate ships, then Mad Hannah Mabbot's Flying Rose would be the very first on the list. Do not read this book on an empty stomach.

When Mad Hannah Mabbot, infamous pirate captain of the Flying Rose, Shark of the Indian Ocean, and all-around terror of the seven seas, assassinates Lord Ramsay at his dinner table, Owen Wedgewood (the chef of said dinner) has the terrible misfortune to catch her eye--or more specifically, her tastebuds.

Hannah Mabbot may a "pillar of menace," as Owen fearfully describes her on seeing her for the first time, but this pillar has a taste for the finer things in life. She promptly decides that it's a pirate's life for poor Owen, and there's nothing he can do about it. She hauls him aboard and charges him with the task of preparing her one amazing meal each week -- or he walks the plank. 

And so Owen joins the Flying Rose as it sails across the map in pursuit of Hannah Mabbot's intensely personal vengeance and the mysterious pirate captain "Brass Fox." Her crusade against the corrupt opium trade and their attempts to avoid the Frenchman who hunts them send them from the coast of England to the caves of China (briefly even stopping over at the Philippines!). As he makes friends with criminals and culinary miracles from nothing, Owen learns that a recipe that calls for cinnamon and gunpowder may not be such an improbable thing after all.

Do not read this book on an empty stomach. Thumbscrews would be merciful in comparison.

There's no way to go wrong on an amazing premise like this (a captive master chef plays culinary Scheherazade to infamous pirate queen as they sail through storms and sea battles to destroy the British opium trade -- what's not to like?), but Eli Brown and his beautiful words hold you as much a captive as if you were trapped on a pirate ship in the middle of the sea yourself -- and you won't mind at all.
"Basil-beef broth had been served, with its rainbow sheen of delicate oils trembling on the surface and a flavor that turned the tongue into the very sunlit hill where the bulls snorted and swung their heavy heads."
I mean come on, have a little mercy, Eli Brown.

It was an absolute pleasure to watch Owen struggle every week to prepare Hannah's supper with the meager (and more often than not, decaying) rations on a pirate ship. I was convinced he was secretly a wizard or a culinary version of MacGyver. Even with sparse supplies and primitive equipment, he would whip up a masterful feast that made my tastebuds cry copious, enzymatic tears. Whenever he obtained a new ingredient to work with, my excitement would go through the roof. 

You just have to love a man whose devotion to food is as religious as it is generous. His triumph in securing a chest full of turmeric, cinnamon, and other spices was mine as well -- it was kind of like watching your team win the Olympics. "I felt like an emperor receiving the treasures of a new country," he says, beholding his prize with starry eyes. So did I, Owen. So did I.

Hannah Mabbot is dashing--I'm aware that's an adjective commonly reserved for those of the male persuasion, but there's no other way to describe her. She doesn't walk--she strides, confidence powering every step. She can't come into a room without instantly conquering it with the sheer force of her personality. Hannah Mabbot thrills the feminist in me; she's a template for people who wish to write amazing women without falling into the Strong Female Character trap. Yes, she's a badass, but she's as feminine as she is masculine. She can revel in female luxuries and play with a bunny one minute and blaze through an enemy ship the next. The transition is organic and escapes the Mary Sue trope because there's nothing ideal about her. Her romance with Owen never makes her soft, because straight off the bat, Hannah Mabbot is a fully formed person who knows her mind even better than Owen does his. She comes just a hair shy off being perfect but her ultimate flaw lies in a revelation I won't ruin for you.

It's a testament to Eli Brown's talent that mild-mannered Owen isn't drowned out by the hurricane that is Hannah Mabbot. Their relationship, with its inevitably rocky start, takes time to develop -- especially as most of the first half of the book is Owen puzzling out ways to escape the ship and seeing Hannah as a monster. Her opinion of him, kitchen mastery aside, is not that much better, either.

Owen: "As you well know, I fight about as well as a pillow." 
Hannah: "That's an insult to the pillow. At least they can take a beating."
With that cute little bit of repartee, I shall end this behemoth of a review. All I really want to say is that Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an absolutely fantastic book with amazing protagonists, charming side characters (for instance, burly Mr. Apples, who is inordinately fond of sheep because of reasons), and compelling adventures guaranteed to vacuum-seal your nose to its pages until the end!


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