Bendy, a scrivener's son in London, 1482, is apprenticed to the arch-enemy, William Caxton, the first printer in England. Bendy's brothers, seeking to produce cheap hand-written books and seeing their market threatened, conspire to buy up all the available paper (only made abroad). This plot intertwinces with the story of how Caxton produced the first edition of Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.
It is a beautifully written book. I read it immediately after Harnett's masterpiece The Woolpack. Here are two reasons why I preferred the Woolpack:
It has a single plot focused on the supply of wool whereas The Load of Unicorn has two plots, as described above, and though they are dovetailed it does seem that the focus has been diffused.
The denouement by which the protagonist discovers the truth is by the clever working out of the clues, whereas in The Load of Unicorn it is by being captured by the baddies and then over-hearing them reveal their wickedness, which is a bit of a cop-out, especially that the hero's escape is so easy, so unlinked to the hero's special qualities, a sort of deus ex machina without the god and without the mechanism.
But it's a great yarn. And there is a lot of history, easily digested, contained within it.
- "He began to see where the shoe might pinch." (Ch 6)
- "In those crowds it would be possible to miss one's own shadow." (Ch 14)
June 2021; 249 pages