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.

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