Monday, September 6, 2010

The Time of Terror (Historical Fiction)

Author: Seth Hunter
Publication Date: 2010 in the US (2008 in the UK)
Length: 391 pages
Cost: The list price for the hardcover is $24.95, but you can buy a new hardcover from Amazon for $16.47. The Kindle edition is $9.99, and there is presently no paperback available.
Where Did I Hear About It: I pulled it off of the "New Books" shelf in the library.

The Backstory

The novel is set in 1793, and its central figure is Nicholas Peake, a young ship's commander with an exhaulted father and a none-too-conventional mother. Through a series of events, he is given a new identity (Nicholas Turner, American), a new ship (Speedwell, also American), and a mysterious cargo of tobacco to bring to Le Havre by the British government.

Turner falls in with three important people in Paris, Gilbert Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Sara Seton. Gilbert and Mary are romantically linked, and Sara, a friend, is the wife of a French aristocrat in exile in Austria. It is through them, particularly Imlay, that Turner is involved in the important events of the day. France is in the midst of the Reign of Terror of Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety. At this point, no one is safe--countless innocent people fill the available prisons and batch after batch are executed by the guillotine daily. Mary stays out of the action by retiring to her home just outside of the city, and after a while, the reader will not see much of her. Sara, under a different surname, attempts to hide her aristocratic link from the authorities, living in Paris. Imlay is some sort of agent with some kind of plan that isn't clear to either Turner or the reader for most of the book. The only thing Turner and the reader know is that Imlay believes that the Terror has gone far enough and someone needs to end it.

There is lots of action in this novel, all following Turner. Turner meets with action at sea, both natural and with other ships, and he moves from England to France multiple times with new orders from the English, all centering around an attempt to bring down the Revolutionary government. On the inside, it is clear that all is not well in France as dissent is revealed from within, and notable potential victims of the Terror start to mount up, including Thomas Paine of American fame. It is clear to Turner that Imlay is playing some sort of double-game with him as well, and even Turner himself spends some time in prison. When Turner begins to figure out the plot and its purpose, the Terror comes to a head for all characters involved, and not all come out alive.

What About The Book?

This is A GREAT BOOK! Hunter has many things going for him--he knows maritime history well, he knows ships well, and he knows the time period well. This combination helps him write a really great story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Although Hunter knows maritime history and ships' terms, he does not allow that knowledge to bog down the narrative. Even someone with no knowledge of ships can figure out what he's talking about when he discusses a portion of the ship that, say, is damaged in some way. He also knows the events during the Reign of Terror, and he manages to make them part of the novel without "forcing" them in, in an unclear or unrelated way. He puts a story together very well, focusing on the action rather than trying to explain every little detail of every possible event. For example, he jumps between what are clearly important events and many times, will leave out a direct description of what occurs in between those events, alluding to what may have happened in succeeding chapters. This technique works very well--the reader never feels like something was missing or lost, and instead, often feels a sense of relief that he/she doesn't have to plod through less interesting, and unrelated, events to the story.

The only drawback is that outside of the events and the setting, it is hard to picture this as a true historical fiction. It has a modern feel to it--modern in its beliefs, attitudes towards society, and dialogue. All women are pretty well liberated here, which is great from a modern standpoint but completely incorrect in the context of the times. There is a focus on the importance of money and the incorporation of a little too much of modern economic theory into it that provides a very intersting plot line, but is perhaps too much interpreted from today's lens. It is also very simply written with focus on action and dialogue--don't expect any long descriptions here, and for some, that will detract. Otherwise, it keeps the reader interested throughout, and all events are put to a purpose by the author.

Rating: A 9. It was great--a little too quick a read, but enjoyable from beginning to end.
Buy It or Borrow It: With a book like this and a price around $15, you can't go wrong to buy it. However, you won't lose anything by borrowing it, either. I do recommend you do one of those, though, because it is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Artemis (Historical Fiction)

Author: Julian Stockwin
Publication Date: 2002
Length: 344 Pages
Cost: The original hardcover cost around $27.00, but new paperbacks start just over $10.00 now. There is no Kindle version available at present.
Where Did I Hear About It: I walked around the library looking for maritime historical fiction, and I came across this book.

The Backstory

Artemis is the second in a series of novels centering around Thomas Kydd, a young man impressed into British naval service in the 1790s. Kydd is accompanied by one Nicholas Renzi, a man with a mysterious, but affluent, past. This novel begins with the transfer of Thomas Kydd and Nicholas Renzi from the Duke William to Artemis, where they meet with almost immediate action, spotting a hostile French ship as the novel opens. Artemis is damaged, but victorious, and returns to England for much needed repairs. The crew is hailed as heroes, and for a short time, they remain on shore where Kydd meets his sister, and later, his family. After ironing out details at home, he and Renzi rejoin the Artemis, embarking on a mysterious voyage to India. The rest of the novel centers on the ship and crew's adventures as they all become circumnavigators, visiting China, several notable Islands, and rounding the Straits of Magellan. In the process, Kydd and Renzi meet with multiple challenges, including a young lady that piques Kydd's interest, a visit to China, and help lended to an English astronomer.

At the end, there seems to be promise for Kydd and Renzi in moving up the ranks of sailors. There are currently 11 books in the series, and the premise of the whole is to document Kydd's rise from the lowest-level sailor to the status of admiral. As this is the only book I have read, I am unsure whether the 11th book is the last in the series, or if there will be more to follow.

What About The Book?

Julian Stockwin has a very strong background in maritime history--he knows ship terms from fore to aft, and the novel is peppered with descriptions that would be the envy of the most widely-read scholars in the field. However, the novel suffers from several important shortcomings that are entirely independent of this history.

First, the ship terms will get in the way for anyone who is not well-versed in their meanings. Even more confusing is the dialogue, which is often expressed in a combination of dialect and sailor-speak when it involves the common sailors. There are also several "traditions" and "ship customs" that will make perfect sense to readers "in the know," but their significance is not explained for those of us who lack this knowledge. As a result, the novel takes on the character of having been composed for a specialized audience and not to entice those of us who lack background but abound in curious fascination and the desire for a good story.

The plot is another shortfall, and it is probably the most important. This book is too much a part of a series and not enough a novel in its own right. It is perfectly understandable for there to be loose ends meant to be addressed by future books, but that arguably goes too far and cripples this book irreversibly. In addition, the plot is a little bit too neatly laid out whereby seemingly insurmountable events and forces are circumvented without any consequence to the characters. This makes the action feel very unrealistic, and this tendency becomes so persistent that by the action rounding out the story, you already know everything is going to turn out just fine for everyone of any importance. For example, when Kydd returns to England after the battle with the French ship, he meets up with his sister. She convinces him to return home, against his inclinations, to help his father, whose wig business is failing. In a matter of a few quick chapters, what would be a nearly devastating set of circumstances for most is neatly tied up with a bow so Kydd can return to sea--Renzi conveniently turns up, a "brilliant idea" is formulated to transform wigmaker Dad into schoolmaster, and voila, Kydd makes it back to the ship just in time before it embarks on the voyage that takes up most of the narrative. If this were the only example of an all-too-conveniently laid plot, it wouldn't make as much of a difference, but EVERY conflict or event turns out very similarly without fail.

There is also a tendency for events to occur without much seeming significance to the plot. I suspect the purpose is to introduce the reader to "what happens on ships" but, if the author is intent upon producing a series of books, I am sure he will have (or has had at this point) ample time to put those events to better, more significant, use. At one point, an illness breaks out on board the ship, which is potentially devastating under the circumstances. Renzi, being "book-learned" is put to use as a surgeon, but this has no point at all as he basically does nothing useful to the plot--not even something bad that would be useful to the plot. In addition, although this is an extremely important event in the real-life experience of being at sea, the whole thing is up and done in about 10 pages with the losses to the crew being chalked up as "that's just the way it is." Basically, if this had never happened in the narrative, the reader wouldn't have missed it, so the reader must ask; what is the point? Unfortunately, this is just one example of the reader asking this important question--there are many, many others.

I won't wreck the plot or the end, but I will say that the novel wraps up with another, again pointless, event, leaving the reader to ask; what the hell was that?

Rating: A 2. It's an uncaptivating read that with a combination of the reader asking "huh?" and/or knowing in advance that everything will work out just fine.
Buy It or Borrow It: Don't go near this one. In a world with a 20-novel Patrick O'Brien series available and countless other maritime historical fiction besides, there is no need to pick this series up. There is a reason this series has not received very much attention beyond the hype of the first novel, Kydd. Given the attention to Kydd, however, that novel may be worth a read--but, if it is, you'll be sadly disappointed to continue the series any farther with Artemis as its follow-up.