A Woman’s Quest for Independence in Medieval England

Karen Brooks' The Brewer's Tale

This was originally posted on my blog Reading the Past. It is reposted here with my permission.

The Brewer’s Tale will be a treasure for readers who appreciate an accurately rendered medieval setting and characters who reflect the era. The time frame (the later years of Henry IV’s reign) isn’t one often showcased in historical fiction, especially from a tradeswoman’s perspective.

All of the details on the production of ale and beer in early 15th-century England are fascinating to read – from the collection of ingredients to the actual brewing, the quality testing by officials called ale-conners, and the regulations covering sales and distribution.

On the other hand, the novel’s heroine meets with almost every possible calamity. While the fluid prose is compulsively readable, the periods of uneven plotting made for a bumpy experience. Rarely have I read a novel that provoked such a mixed reaction on my part.

After her father’s death at sea, and upon learning that her home and wealth no longer belong to her family, Anneke Sheldrake takes an unusual step. Using knowledge passed down from her Dutch mother, she decides to start a brewery business to provide for herself, her orphaned siblings, and the servants who depend on them.

But Anneke is a single woman from a respected merchant family, and her decision is greeted with disbelief and shock. Her going into trade herself means deliberately lowering her social status, which is incomprehensible to those around her. “It’s like a sackcloth you can never shuck,” her steward, Adam, tells her. “Once you step in this direction, you can never go back.” Brooks deserves credit for faithfully depicting the social strictures faced by her courageous protagonist.

Anneke’s journey toward independence meets with great success in some avenues – with her secret recipes, her brews are a huge hit – but it’s fraught with difficulties. Monks from the nearby friary have their own competing brew and aren’t afraid to play dirty. Anneke’s cousin becomes more spiteful than ever. And that’s just the beginning. I understand her life isn’t meant to be easy, but some episodes felt so over-the-top dramatic that I put the book down at several points, not sure if I wanted to continue. In the end, I’m glad I persisted.

In addition to the realistic late medieval atmosphere, other highlights include Anneke’s relationships with the people who support her, including Adam, a servant-turned-friend and father figure; an older businesswoman, Alyson, who was plucked right out of Chaucer’s world; and a man who becomes an unexpected love interest.

“You’ve endured more than anyone has a right,” Anneke is told at one point, after yet another period of misfortune. I can’t help but agree. She’s a character desperately in need of a satisfying ending – and this lengthy, entertaining, and sometimes frustrating book provides one at last.

The Brewer’s Tale was published by Harlequin MIRA Australia in October 2014 (trade pb, 582pp, Au$32.99).  For those outside Australia, it’s available at Fishpond for US$24.97, postpaid. The paperback’s not listed at Amazon.com, but the Audible version is.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a NetGalley widget.

If you enjoyed this review, I have many, many more at Reading the Past. I hope to see you there.

About Sarah Johnson

SARAH JOHNSON is a reference librarian, readers’ advisor, avid historical fiction reader, NBCC member. Book review editor for the Historical Novels Review, Booklist reviewer, and NoveList contributor. Winner of ALA’s Louis Shores Award for book reviewing (2012). Blogging since 2006. Subscribe to my blog: www.readingthepast.blogspot.com.

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