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Historical fiction can follow well defined ruts driven into the road by other more original authors in much the same way that Tolkein created an entire eco-system of fantasy books that followed. Naval fiction often follows this approach. A common approach is for a 'hero' to be presented with various challenges from both the enemy and his own side which he will naturally overcome. He (and it will be a 'he' in the majority of case) will usually be highly attractive to the opposite sex and in some cases frequently bump into famous 'good' guys who will approve of both him and his actions. They usually have known followers who often function to allow weird bits of ship language to be 'explained'. So in the period we have Sharpe winning every key engagement in the Peninsula, Bolitho, Hornblower, Aubrey and so on.  You can usually separate the 'better' (subjective opinion) authors from the worse by the degree in which the author tempers their natural heroism. As an example Hornblower is painfully shy though this does not stop him getting the woman. One of the reasons I like Aubrey so much as he is a character with obvious weaknesses who functions in the world without continuously bumping into fictional representatives of famous naval officers. With Aubrey you get less of the 'hero at sea' and more of a 'hero existing in a well realised world that is a believable representation of what commanding a Kings ship would actually have been like' but it is still a story about a Captain who you realise will always win through in the end.


Anyway that is the common path. Newer authors who want to succeed often follow the same path but introduce quirks to make thing slightly different. Take Julian Stockwin's 'Kydd' - from the lower class (like Sharpe) he is pressganged and starts his books as a landsman who applies himself and rather rapidly gains promotion through the ranks. Beyond that he is a standard clean cut hero character. Similarly we have David Donachie's 'John Pearce' who is very anti-navy when he is pressed and has no interest in the navy at all initially (even trying to establish a mutiny so he can desert one ship). The early books in this series allow a solid tale concerning the lower decks to be drawn especially as 'Heroic Captain' does not appear to be a target on the horizon for the character at that point. The author complements this by a simultaneous 'point of view' from the Captain of the boat 'Ralph Barclay' who does not appear incompetent but is giving very strong hints of being 'bad' including such historical references as being a follower of Rodney and then taking up with Hotham which will send up red flags all over the place to people who know the history of the period. His dislike of Nelson (who pops up frequently to be insulted) is another 'kick the dog scene indicator' (*3) though it does allow an interpretation of Nelson prior to his elevation to actual hero hood to be provided.  At the end of the second book our hero (attractive to the ladies who has to have things explained to him in an amusing twist on that plot technique) is a heroic but utterly incompetent Lieutenant  due to lack of actual experience in the rank, who is obviously slowly grabbing the odd bit of training to allow him to move forward in the Navy. The books are a cross between Stockwin and Sharpe and the author has succeeded in writing an interesting story that I will certainly continue with.


The book for this specific review takes an utterly different approach to anything that has come before. Firstly (for those who will be unaware) it is set in the British Navy during the Revolutionary to Napoleonic period so beloved of many of the mainstays of this fictional branch but there is no lead character and no hero. The story is told from the 'Alternating Character point of view' (*4) of many (many) characters all over the ship. This surprisingly works well and  introduces an element of risk as without a hero we do not know who will survive or even if the ship will itself. The characters are very diverse and the situations that arise cover a wide range of activities on board ship and you actually get what you think is a good idea of what ship life and combat must have been like. The fight at the end is actually quite tense and is very well told especially  as you know a lot more of the characters from their earlier POV stuff so deaths seem to matter more. There is also a far finer degree of 'grey' about their characters than 'hero' books can do as a hero is a hero and cannot be a coward or anti-social.  I am really looking forward to seeing how the author (the wonderfully named 'Alaric Bond') carries the story forward. Because the POV's told are all over the ship the tale moves forward with the gun deck, lookouts, surgeon, powder boys, command echelon and more each telling their tale and often separately from the other tales so there is no overriding 'hero runs to the gun deck and does so and so before returning to repel boarders' type stream of consciousness. Indeed there are very few books that can cover some of these scenarios at all and often even those can only use one book before the hero advances to a rank which precludes their being there again (examples might include the early Hornblowers when he was  a Midshipman or Lieutenant and the same for Kydd's early books or perhaps Aubrey on the Java) so instead you get an almost complete picture of a ship containing diverse personalities working together in a situation you could see happening. The book is definitely not a castle building story (*2).


The book does have a few weaknesses. The first is that at any point people can start explaining what they are thinking or what something (that would have been perfectly obvious to the characters) would occur. This happens frequently especially early on as every bit of sea equipment has someone explaining its use to someone who either knows or needs to know 'I see you looking at this let me explain what it is in exhaustive detail'. The second is that the author is not quite up on recent Napoleonic Naval Historiography and still follows the Victorian line on several subjects. To most readers this will not matter (as it will just reinforce their own Dunning-Kruger inbuilt prejudice's (*1)) but on a couple of occasions I did wince at something I felt was either not true or an exaggeration that would just confirm an incorrect assumption. The two that leap to mind are the ship's crew being provided horse meat to eat whilst in port and secondly that the Marines were an 'elite' organisation with skills that were better than a crack infantry regiment. N.A.M Rodgers has fairly convincingly attacked the Victorian myth of the food being always 'bad' and the marines at this point could not be described as elite. Competent certainly but elite? No.


The entire book works well to show the story of a ship and crew as an entity and does not focus on one individual and for me it works. If you want to try something that is a very different work of fiction on the period then it comes strongly recommended.






  • 1 Dunning -Kruger generated research that showed that the less someone knew on a subject the more likely they were to over-rate their ability in or concerning that subject. So someone who has driven professionally might sway they ranked themselves at 60% in driving ability whereas someone who has just passed their test would give themselves '95%' . The follow on from this was that the people often most insistent on the little information they have actually picked up are often the least knowledgeable on the particular subject so the least trustworthy whereas the knowledgeable ones will be covering their work with caveats. In reading since people 'like' what they 'know' they often prefer stories that confirm their own knowledge and are less comfortable with more knowledgeable authors who might present something that challenges their knowledge.
  • 2 'Castle Building' is referred to here with regard to C.S.Lewis's interpretation where he differentiated good fiction from 'bad' fiction by the degree to which they allowed the reader to imagine themselves as the hero or lead. As an example he described one sort of castle-builder as


"Egoistic Castle-builder:  when reading a story, the reader imagines always himself to be “the hero and everything is seen through his eyes.  It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women, owns the ocean-going yacht, or is acclaimed as the greatest living poet”


As an aside Lewis later relates castle builders dislike of fantasy through this prism which is interesting as at a certain level it also explains some of the disdain for historical fiction as well. Though at several levels the 'Hero' storylines common in the genre certainly could be described as castle-building for those with the imagination to see themselves living in that world/period.


“Though they do not mistake their castle-building for reality, they want to feel that it might be.  The woman reader does not believe that all eyes follow her, as they follow the heroine of the book; but she wants to feel that, given more money, and therefore  better dresses, jewels, cosmetics, and opportunities, they might.  The man does not believe that he is rich and socially successful; but if only he won a sweepstake, if only fortunes could be made without talent, he might become so.  He knows the daydream is unrealised; he demands that is should be, in principle, realisable.  That is why the slightest hint of the admittedly impossible ruins his pleasure.  A story which introduces the marvelous, the fantastic, says to him by implication ‘I am merely a work of art.  You must take me as such—must enjoy me for my suggestions, my beauty, my irony, my construction, and so forth.  There is no question of anything like this happening to you in the real world.’  After that, reading—his sort of reading—becomes pointless.  Unless he can feel ‘This might—who knows?—this might one day happen to me’, the whole purpose for which he reads is frustrated.  It is, therefore, an absolute rule:  the more completely a man’s reading is a form of egoistic castle-building, the more he will demand a certain superficial realism, and the less he will like the fantastic.  He wishes to be deceived, at least momentarily, and nothing can deceive unless it bears a plausible resemblance to reality.  Disinterested castle-building may dream of nectar and ambrosia, of fairy break and honey dew; the egoistic sort dreams rather of bacon and eggs or steak” .



  • 3 'Kick the dog scene' refers to an author or filmmakers making someone carry out an act of evil for no 'gain' for himself to show who the bad guy is Hitchcock once said


"In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings."


  • 4 'Alternating Character Point of view' - perhaps made most famous by George.R.R.Martin this covers a narrative technique where several characters tell a story from their own point of view without a narrator. Can be first person or 'stream of consciousness'



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Joss, the rest of the series is just as good. I'm waiting for anything new from the author, although I suppose it will be at least a year or so before his next book is out.


Started: MS Bounty Longboat,

On Hold:  Heinkel USS Choctaw paper

Down the road: Shipyard HMC Alert 1/96 paper, Mamoli Constitution Cross, MS USN Picket Boat #1

Scratchbuild: Echo Cross Section


Member Nautical Research Guild

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Sounds like a good read, Joss.   I'll have to look for it.  Thanks for the review.

Edited by mtaylor

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