The Bitter Trade

- historical fiction (17th century), coffee, silk trade, weaving, London

The Bitter Trade

By Piers Alexander

The Bitter Trade is a historical adventure set during the Glorious Revolution: Rebellious silk trader Calumny Spinks must become a coffee racketeer and join the conspiracy against the King to save his father’s life.

In 1688, torn by rebellions, England lives under the threat of a Dutch invasion. Redheaded Calumny Spinks is the lowliest man in an Essex backwater: half-French and still unapprenticed at seventeen, yet he dreams of wealth and title.

When his father’s violent past resurfaces, Cal’s desperation leads him to become a coffee racketeer. He has just three months to pay off a blackmailer and save his father’s life - but his ambition and talent for mimicry pull him into a conspiracy against the King himself.

Cal’s journey takes him from the tough life of Huguenot silk weavers to the vicious intrigues at Court. As the illicit trader Benjamin de Corvis and his controlling daughter Emilia pull him into their plots, and his lover Violet Fintry is threatened by impending war, Cal is forced to choose between his conscience and his dream of becoming Mister Calumny Spinks.

My Thoughts

I was directed via Twitter to an article Piers Alexander had written about how he had published his book. I liked the article and I liked what Piers was saying on his website, so I bought the book and started following the author. Piers Alexander is the pen name of Piers Bearne.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Thoroughly. I think the writing is superb and the descriptions transport you to London 1688, with its busyness, its stinkiness, its bawdiness and its lawlessness. The protagonist, Calumny Spinks (and what a great name), is not quite seventeen when we are introduced to him in a village in Essex – he is something of an outsider, can neither read nor write and, with his father’s curious reluctance to apprentice him in the Guild of Weavers or allow him to go to London, has no prospects for learning a trade. But his father has a secret, which Calumny learns by degrees after they are forced to move to London, where he has to live by his wits to save both his and his father’s lives.

Calumny is timid in a world for which he has not been prepared. He has a sense of humour, an eye for the ladies and an uncanny talent for mimicking people – these get him into trouble and save his bacon in equal measure. He makes mistakes, some of which have dire consequences, but he has a strong sense of duty and loyalty.

The story is written in the first person from the point of view of Calumny, with some humour and clever observation. There is enough period language and syntax to make me feel I was reading about another era, but not so much that the text didn’t flow for a modern-day reader. It is as much, if not more, about the silk trade as the coffee trade - all fascinating.

There are quite a lot of characters, and I found myself once or twice getting a bit confused as to who was who and what they were doing. But the characters are all really well drawn and there are some strong females in the story, which you might not expect from a novel set in this time. (But the Irish aren’t portrayed in a very favourable light!)

The writing was so good, I was happy to believe in the historical accuracy. The author provides a section at the end of the book in which he explains why “Calumny’s story is sometimes at odds with the commonly received history and geography of seventeenth-century England” – but very cleverly blames many of them on Calumny’s innocence or naïvety! A couple of these anomalies seemed a bit unnecessary to me – the book wouldn’t have suffered for making the fiction fit the fact. One reviewer has pointed out (presumably correctly) another inaccuracy I wasn’t aware of, but as this is the only mistake I have read about as being a research error, it suggests that much of the rest is spot on.

I was a tad disappointed by the ending. I would have liked it to have been much stronger – readers have invested time in wanting the characters to survive and overcome, and need a more thorough rounding off of the story – a few more paragraphs would have nailed it. There is a sequel (due for publication in 2015), but still I would have liked this book to end more decisively.

I would highly recommend this book, particularly to people who enjoy historical novels, but also to those who think they don’t – try it; this just might be the book to convert you.

Editorial Input & Design

The book clearly has been very well edited and proofread. Hardly an error jumped out. There was one scene very early in the book on which I would have made an editorial query as to whether it was likely to happen (it had to for the rest of the story, but I think it could have happened differently); occasionally a word was used that I would query whether an uneducated and unworldly-wise youngster would say; and there was one instance of the wrong name being used. I would have suggested a stronger ending. One reviewer on Goodreads said that she thinks the book “needs one more good edit”, but I disagree: apart from the few nit-picky instances I’ve mentioned, the story flows very well.

Cover: A simple, effective and professional-looking cover. Class.

Internal design: I read this on a Kindle; the text flows well and I had no problems. The format of the paragraphs is with a space above and starting at the margin: this is unusual for a book format and I think it may look more professional and be easier to read if the paragraphs were closed up with an indent.

Book Clubs & Reviews

I would say this would make an excellent book club read. There is plenty to discuss: history, the lives of women in the seventeenth-century, how the poor lived, the greed of people (then and now), the role of religion, the role of the aristocracy, the motivations and personalities of the many characters in the book, Calumny’s conscience, his father’s love, writing historical fiction – oh, so many topics. To be accompanied by coffee cake and wine. (It should be coffee to drink, of course, but ... well, book club.)

What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 4.9 stars (24 reviewers): “Engrossing from the first page to the last; richly imagined, skilfully executed and full of surprises.” “The plot twisted and turned right up to the bitter end.” “Riveting and fast paced.”; Amazon US readers give it 4.4 stars (17 reviewers); Goodreads readers give it 4.12 stars (59 ratings): “An extremely visual book.” “[A] vividly depicted backdrop that manages to encompass the beauty and the ugliness of its time period …” “[T]he blend of historical fiction with mystery makes this a fantastic adventure.”

The Bitter Trade won the PEN Factor Award at The Literary Consultancy’s “Writing in a Digital Age Conference” in 2013, where it was described as a “punchy historical novel”, and Jury Chair Rebecca Swift said it was chosen as the winner “based on the quality of writing, the engaging plot, and the rich and unusual historical context. Dazzling and playful!”

The Great Historicals review site says: “With its unpredictable plot, great storyline, and lovable main character, there is much to enjoy.” J. J. Marsh on Bookmuse says: “This is a beautifully written story, a master class in voice, character and description. So many lines stopped me in my tracks to just admire the craftsmanship of this prose.”

Many bloggers have reviewed this book, and unanimously agree on its quality. A selection of reviews are:

Historical Novel Society

Great Historicals


Adventures in Historyland

Piers has links to other reviews on his website.

Buy & Author

ISBN 9780992864507

Available from: (paperback £8.89; ePub £3.60)

Kenny’s, Galway, Ireland (paperback €13.05)

Amazon (Kindle £3.99/$4.99; paperback £10.41/$11.00) (£3.99)

Apple iBooks (£3.99)

Kobo (Ireland) (€5.99)

Nook (3.99)

For other ebook vendors, see


Follow the author:

Website (recommended for readers)

Twitter @thebittertrade (recommended for readers and writers)




Links of interest:

Soundcloud Audio excerpts (excellently read – will the full book be on audio?)

Goodreads First chapter

PEN Factor On the PEN Factor award, with two excerpts

Bookbrunch Piers Alexander on how he published his novel

Self Publishing Advice Piers Alexander on how his book got to be stocked in airport bookshops.

Over to You – Comment and Share!

  • Lorna says:

    I enjoyed this book too but found myself being frustrated by my bad memory of 17th and 18th century kings and queens. I read it on kindle and I think I’d have enjoyed it more reading it as a paperback. I’m of the camp that still prefers ‘real books’!
    I’d have liked a chart or something at the beginning, some summary that provided dates of when first king was killed, the 12 year parliament etc.
    I thought it captured what London would have been like very well, the smells, the need to be thinking on one’s feet to survive etc.
    I suppose Calumny was a little like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist – uneducated and having to survive on his talents and his wits.
    A good book but I didn’t feel myself being transported to 18th century London if you know what I mean.

    17 Jan 2015 13:13:06

  • Clare says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Lorna. My knowledge of that time is a bit hazy, too, but Piers’s writing carried me along so I was right alongside the characters in London.

    17 Jan 2015 16:55:45

  • Christine says:

    I found your review so intriguing that I read the first chapter on GoodReads. It really looks like a book I’d like to read: I found the style and language engaging from the very first sentence. I’ve tried to buy the Kindle version, but Amazon (UK) doesn’t have it. Maybe it’ll come out soon and I’ll buy it then. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    02 May 2015 16:11:26

  • Clare says:

    Hi, Christine. Thanks for reading! I read this on a Kindle – I don’t know why you couldn’t get it. I’ll try to find out for you – it really is worth the read.

    02 May 2015 19:28:31

  • Clare says:

    Hi, Christine. The Bitter Trade isn’t on Amazon while it is being serialised – you can get it in staves (instalments) from (ebook or audio), and it will be available again in full after the last stave has been published. The serialisation is unabridged, I'm told.

    03 May 2015 07:27:23

  • Christine says:

    Thanks for this information. I’ll look out for the full version. Happy reading!

    03 May 2015 09:02:26

  • Clare says:

    You’re welcome. Happy reading to you, too!

    03 May 2015 11:07:47

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