Reviewed by Ambrea
1819: Owen Wedgwood, famed as the “Caesar of Sauces,” has found himself kidnapped by a strange and ruthless pirate captain known as Mad Hannah Mabbot and named chef aboard the Flying Rose. Now trapped on Mabbot’s ship, Wedgwood learns he must cook a satisfactory meal for her each Sunday if he hopes to survive on the open seas. But, as he spends more time aboard the Flying Rose, Wedgwood discovers there is a method to Mabbot’s madness—and he’ll discover companionship in the most unlikely places.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown is a strangely compelling novel, yet I’m still not sure what to think. It’s a long, winding odyssey that takes our narrator, Owen Wedgwood, to the edge of the empire and nearly drags him to the depths of the sea. Like Odysseus, Wedgwood—or Wedge, as Mabbot affectionately calls him—takes a journey that leads him across oceans and into the dens of monsters. You can almost think of Mabbot as Calypso, a cross between a wicked temptress and a pirate queen.
Alluring and wild, Mabbot is as dangerous and capricious as the sea. She’s just as liable to like you as shoot you, and yet she has a strange moral compass that leads her to punish slavers, opium peddlers, murderers and anyone who crosses her. She is, as Wedgwood accuses, a red-haired tyrant, but she’s not unduly cruel or intentionally malicious. She’s a strange amalgamation of opposites, which makes her oddly likable.
Like Wedgwood, I didn’t know what to make of her. I mean, is she a villain or is she a hero? Neither, I suppose. She’s just a woman who has been tempered by the sea and shaped by the unkindness, barbarity, she’s endured. She’s human and she’s desperately flawed, which makes her compelling—and, truthfully, a bit hard to stomach.
Piracy is an occupation that’s neither gentle nor gentlemanly. It can be senselessly cruel and completely tragic, which reflects in Brown’s novel; moreover, it’s also an occupation in which readers will not find a hero. In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, it’s impossible to look upon the world with only one version of right and wrong. There is no black and white, merely the anticipation of survival. You won’t find anything heroic about Mabbot, despite our fondest expectations set by Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Altogether, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an intriguing if unusual novel. It’s an adventure story, but it’s quite unlike what I’ve read in the past, especially regarding pirates. Sure, I’ve had a taste with Pirates! by Celia Rees, as well as the Wave Walkers series by Kai Meyer and Vampirates by Justin Somper. But those are so mild in comparison to Eli Brown’s novel, which is weighed down by tragedy and riddled with the cruel truths of reality.
It belongs in a class of its own, truly.