book review: fawkes by nadine brandes

Fawkes by Nadine Brandes
Thomas Nelson, 448 pp.
Published July 10, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this title from the publisher for review consideration. This did not inform or influence my opinion in any way.

Thomas Fawkes is turning to stone, and the only cure to the Stone Plague is to join his father’s plot to assassinate the king of England.

Silent wars leave the most carnage. The wars that are never declared, but are carried out in dark alleys with masks and hidden knives. Wars where color power alters the natural rhythm of 17th century London. And when the king calls for peace, no one listens until he finally calls for death.

But what if death finds him first?

Keepers think the Igniters caused the plague. Igniters think the Keepers did it. But all Thomas knows is that the Stone Plague infecting his eye is spreading. And if he doesn’t do something soon, he’ll be a lifeless statue. So when his Keeper father, Guy Fawkes, invites him to join the Gunpowder Plot—claiming it will put an end to the plague—Thomas is in.

The plan: use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Igniter King.

The problem: Doing so will destroy the family of the girl Thomas loves. But backing out of the plot will send his father and the other plotters to the gallows. To save one, Thomas will lose the other.

No matter Thomas’s choice, one thing is clear: once the decision is made and the color masks have been put on, there’s no turning back.

Only two things kept me from DNFing this book: my initial interest in a new spin on the historical story of Guy Fawkes and the effort I put into finding and trading for a copy. While I have nothing but respect for the staggering amount of effort required to write and publish a book, I genuinely could not find a single positive part of my reading experience to counterbalance the negative. For my review I've chosen to highlight the three most egregious shortcomings in Fawkes; I struggled with other parts of the story and writing, but these points were by far the most taxing:


Simplistic and self-centered to a fault, Thomas is one of the least compelling protagonists I've encountered. He exhibits a concern for very little beyond curing his own case of the stone plague: not the principles behind his father's plot, the rampant executions of Keepers, or even the personal struggles of his schoolmate Emma. For a story based on a notable event in a long string of injustices and violence spurred by religious differences, Thomas' self-serving viewpoint obscures the grander elements at work in the time period in favor of his own, often immature, preoccupations.

There are also several moments where he behaves like a Good Guy™️ towards Emma. For example:

I followed, though not invited. If she told me to leave, I would respect that. But I wanted her to know that I was with her. For her. [...] She was acting as though she wanted me to leave. Maybe I should. 

He tells himself he'll leave if she wants him to, then plows ahead after clearly recognizing signs she doesn't want him there. This isn't romantic (especially considering his wishy-washy feelings towards Emma for most of the novel)—it's just creepy. Thomas felt like a poor choice for a first-person POV from nearly the beginning, which seriously hampered the story overall. There are revelations about Emma that suggest she would be a much better character to experience this particular time period through, yet she remains secondary to Thomas and his dithering.


Historical fiction can be tricky to find a tone for. Most modern readers won't want to deal with older forms of English, making total accuracy a very restricting choice. But you also want to avoid a wholly contemporary vernacular because eventually you're going to use words or phrases completely inappropriate to the setting. Brandes tries to have it both ways. Characters will answer with "aye" and "nay" when asked a question, yet White Light speaks to Thomas like a 21st century teenager. This presumably ancient and unknowable entity says things like, "Doesn't that make me sound awesome?" and "Not to toot my own horn." The anachronisms were striking enough to immediately pull me out of the story and created an uneven reading experience throughout the book.


If only more things would happen, it might distract from some of the other shortcomings in Fawkes. Yet Thomas has very little to do with the plot's momentum until the final act. Since the book is written from his perspective, that means the reader spends a lot of time hearing about moments that affect neither the outcome of the Gunpowder Plot nor Thomas' development, of which there is little. Coming in at well over 400 pages, Fawkes is long on words but short on events.

If only one—or perhaps even two—of these significant problems cropped up in Fawkes, it may have still been able to work for me. It has a gorgeous cover to draw the reader in and a unique historical event to base a fantasy around. The early 17th century is a rich period of English history and the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, on which the fictional feud between Keepers and Igniters is based, provide plenty of material to examine and interpret through new eyes. This source material feels squandered on an unsympathetic, unengaging, and unchanging protagonist upstaged by a far more compelling supporting character. Trapped between spreading a message and simply entertaining, the uneven tone and poor characterization in Fawkes ultimately put it beyond salvaging for me.


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