A glowing review from Book Muster Down Under prompted me to push The Brewer’s Tale forward on my sagging bookshelf, a move I’m glad I made. What an interesting book! Set in England in the early 1400s, it’s the story of one woman’s quest to succeed in a world run by men, and it’s full of drama, tragedy, scandal … and a bit of romance. Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is a Harlequin imprint – The Brewer’s Tale is a historical fiction novel with romantic elements, rather than a straight romance. Those wanting a romance might be disappointed, but was I fussed? Not at all.
While brewing ale at home was not uncommon in pre-Tudor times, female brewers (as opposed to those who assisted their husbands) were less common. When Anneke Sheldrake turns to brewing in order to support her family after her father dies, everyone warns her that she has a tough road ahead, not least that her reputation could be ruined. Determined not to lose her family home, she goes one step further and opens an ale house. But enemies abound and certain people are determined to bring Anneke down whatever it takes; sometimes Anneke isn’t sure who to trust. Tragedy forces Anneke from her village to the outskirts of London, where she she starts life anew, building another brewing business against the odds. Yet, despite her growing success, which includes being asked to brew for the Crown, there is always the question of whether she will be able to escape her past.
The Brewer’s Tale is peopled with an array of well-drawn characters – good and bad. Anneke (who is also the narrator) is an independent young woman, full of love, compassion and guts. She’s not easily swayed and her determination to look after her family, with or without the help of a man, is admirable, especially given her age and a society which places great weight on a woman “knowing her place”. Standing up against those who say you can’t do something is hard at the best of times. As a reader, it’s easy to be on her side, to want her to succeed in life and love. Supporting characters such as Adam and Alyson stand out for their belief in Anneke, sometimes assisting and sometimes carrying her when things get tough. Both are unwavering in their commitment to Anneke and personify friendship at its best. Alyson, in particular, knows how hard it is for a woman to make it on her own, and, being a pretty tough chick herself, makes it her business to ensure Anneke succeeds. In a way, Adam and Alyson are like surrogate parents to Anneke. Among the good, are the bad, from the mean-spirited and sheep-like men who want to see Anneke fail to the downright nasty, who aren’t afraid to kill for what they want.
Plot-wise, the book moves at a good pace despite its length and is rich in historical detail, particularly when it comes to brewing. A number of mentions of pagan rituals that formed part of Anneke’s brewing process had me wondering whether she’d be sent to the Tower for witchcraft, but the story took a different direction, withholding a few mysteries until the end. The romantic aspect between Anneke and Leander Rainford develops slowly throughout the book, but readers are never privy to their moments of passion. Their romance simply adds to the drama, given that Leander’s father is the one who ousted Anneke from her home, there’s the matter of rank (and Anneke’s “unsavory” occupation), and a secret that Anneke has held close since her mother’s death. Leander was here, there, and everywhere, which was fitting for the times, but I’d have liked to get to know him a bit better to really feel that romance. For me, the stand-out aspect of the novel was insight into women’s roles and brewing, and I found the author’s notes at the end to be fascinating.
Karen Brooks has brewed a complex and addictive novel with The Brewer’s Tale – it’s one that leaves you satisfied, yet wanting more. Highly recommended.
Available from good bookstores and Harlequin Australia. My e-copy was courtesy of Harlequin Australia.
Author: Karen Brooks
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
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