Saturday, March 4, 2017

Come All You Young Fellows, What Follows the Sea...

Some historians make the case that the war between England and France that finally ended Napoleon's reign was the actual First World War, with combat and conflict in nearly every corner of the globe before it was over.

One area of operations was the Caribbean, where French economic interests ran parallel to Spanish -- making the job of an English sea captain no easy task, since he had to sort French enemy from Spanish neutral, and he could never be certain if Spain was still an ally. Into this turmoil sails Charles Hayden and the HMS Themis in 2014's Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead, the fourth Hayden novel from S. Thomas Russell.

Hayden has survived incompetent and vengeful superiors and the prejudice aimed at him for having a French mother to command the Themis. Ordered to act against England's enemies in the Caribbean both private and national, he finds himself the rescuer of two Spanish nationals who will complicate things immeasurably for him.

Every publisher would like to lay hands on the "next Patrick O'Brian" to draw in fans of nautical and historical fiction, and the first three books of the Hayden series showed significant promise from Russell. He's an experienced historical fiction writer and seemed to have something of a hand for tales of seagoing adventure. Until is a major stumble, though. The sea battles and period detail are pressed into the service of a soap-opera plot and ludicrously contrived romance whose finish is visible from the moment the principals are introduced. It remains to be seen if there is a fifth volume of Hayden adventures and if it can bounce back from this low point. Russell writes other fiction as well and hasn't ever brought the Hayden books out annually, so as of now it's all a waiting game.
Most Napoleonic-era nautical fiction focuses on the conflict between England and France, but some other naval action was going on as the 19th century dawned. The fledgling United States Navy was trying to dissuade North African nations from raiding US commerce and either ransoming or enslaving crews. In 2016's The Shores of Tripoli, James L. Haley takes us along with Bliven Putnam as he sails into battle on the USS Constitution against the "Barbary pirates."

We meet Putnam as a very young man, but one feature of many navies of the time was the enlistment of very young men and the placement of great responsibility in their hands. Haley follows the timeline of the US's struggle against the pirates, beaching his hero for quite some time (long enough for an amusing courtship with the delightfully intelligent and independent Clarity Marsh) before bringing him back under arms. Putnam takes part in the U. S. Marines' march across the desert to attack one of the pirate strongholds in addition to serving during sea battles and raids.

Most of Haley's work before now has been non-fiction history without any special focus on the sea, but he seems to adapt well so far. He steps wrong in a few places story-wise and puts his characters through paces our earlier acquaintance with them would suggest they would not take. Given that the war against the Barbary pirates was not very short or focused, it's not surprising that Putnam's story also lacks a little focus. Subsequent novels will work better if Haley can maintain narrative discipline to keep his character, so to speak and to keep a straighter storytelling path. The Barbary conflict is ripe for some sea yarns, so he should have the room to work and improve.
Julian Stockwin has one of the two or so ongoing nautical fiction series that has had some legs and staying power as he writes of the life and voyages of Sir Thomas Kydd. Kydd began life at sea as a pressed man in 2001's Kydd and has been climbing the ranks of success, wealth and fame for 17 novels to date. Now a respected and well-known captain, Kydd begins Inferno on vacation while his ship HMS Tyger is repaired. But he is soon recalled to duty when His Majesty's government decides it cannot let the navy of Denmark fall into Napoleon's hands, even if that proud nation is unwilling to meekly hand over control of its warships to a foreign power.

Kydd's own role in the siege of Copenhagen will also involve a rescue of the exiled King of France, while his friend Renzi Stone and Cecilia, Kydd's sister and Renzi's wife, try to work on the addled King of Denmark to achieve a diplomatic solution. History tells us how well that works out, and Renzi and Cecilia find themselves trapped in the besieged city when it comes under fire from English forces pressuring the king to capitulate.

Stockwin spends probably less time with Kydd in Inferno than in any other of the novels so far. While understandable, since the naval role in the siege was mostly blockade and that would leave our hero with little to do, it makes for a scattered entry in the series. Stockwin's elegant language and deft hand at battles on sea and land haven't flagged, but when those tools are employed to relate the stories of a bunch of people who aren't our main cast, then attention can wander. The Battle of Copenhagen happened in 1807, so we're in sight of the climax of the global fight against the Emperor Napoleon and Stockwin himself said he saw the Kydd series as having 20 books. So there are probably three more to help him raise the quality back to former levels, which is more than enough time when the dip is this shallow and that overall quality this good.

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