It is the spring of 1767, two years after the events of Barry Unsworth’s Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger. Erasmus Kemp, the son of a Liverpool slave ship owner, has had the rebellious sailors of his father’s ship brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. However, Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing and scamming as he goes.
In London, Kemp is looking to invest some of his fortune on Britain’s new industries: coal-mining and steel. When he receives a tip about some mines for sale in East Durham, Kemp sees the business opportunity he has been waiting for, and he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for.