Pirates, treachery, footpads and treason; it’s all in this novel of fifteenth-century London, by Cynthia Harnett, author of “The Wool-Pack”, “Ring Out Bow Bells”, etc.
A young boy ill treated by his much older brothers, who are scriveners, becomes apprenticed to Will Caxton, the first English printer. A battle ensues over paper supply, as the scriveners will go to any lengths to ruin the printer, who threatens their livelihoods. There is a race to procure a valuable manuscript, in which not everyone plays fair, and there are darker deeds afoot than many of the players are aware of.
Cynthia Harnett has a style that draws you gently into the story, holding your interest, until you realize half way through the book that you simply must keep reading to find what happens. While this book becomes very exciting, and has a plot twist that few would see coming, the gentle beginning may not be enough to hold the attention of a reluctant reader.
After reading a couple of her other books, despite the slower start of this one, you know it’s going to be good, and “The Load of Unicorn” does deliver. It’s an honest look at society dealing with a new technology, and the personal truth that people of all times and cultures have had challenges that they must face.
The usual attention to detail is present, including drawings of the watermarks used on the printing paper, copied from originals in museums, and all sorts of amazing everyday items, meticulously researched and skillfully represented. When the story is finished, Harnett walks the reader through the journey of her story writing, explaining the changes to the places described, if you were to visit them today. She also tells how she chose to represent the characters, in particular, using many of Caxton’s own sayings and ideas in her story, which makes for interesting reading when the novel is concluded.
Although “The Wool-Pack” remains my favourite of her books so far, “The Load of Unicorn” is well worth adding to your library.