Headline 2010, ISBN 978-0-7553-5761-1. 427 pages. Review copy supplied by publisher.
The Tide of War is the sequel to the first Nathan Peake adventure, The Time of Terror. It is set in 1794/1795, mainly in the Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta, against the political turmoil of the French Revolution and its effects on the New World colonies. The central character, naval officer Nathan Peake, is fictional, as are most of his colleagues. Baron Carondelet, Spanish governor of Louisiana, and Gilbert Imlay, American agent and adventurer, are historical figures and important secondary characters, particularly Imlay.
Scarred physically by his interrogation as a spy in Revolutionary France, and emotionally by the loss of his lover Sara whom he believes died on the guillotine (events recounted in The Time of Terror), Nathan Peake has temporarily retired from the war to recover at the family estate in Sussex. However, his father’s potentially embarrassing marriage plans prompt Nathan to seek an immediate return to sea, and on reminding the Admiralty of his existence he is promoted to Post Captain and given command of a handsome new frigate, the Unicorn. There is just one snag – the Unicorn’s previous captain was washed up near New Orleans with his throat cut, and the Unicorn herself has vanished somewhere in the Caribbean. Nathan’s mission is to find the Unicorn – if she still exists – and use her to fight the more powerful French frigate Virginie, which is at large in the Caribbean destroying British shipping and arming rebels against Britain’s Spanish allies. On top of this, Nathan finds himself drawn into a slave rebellion in Cuba, a shady plot to conquer Spanish Louisiana, and an encounter with a seductive ex-slave queen who may also be a voodoo sorceress.
The novel is slow to start, with two or three chapters of background before Nathan sets off to the Caribbean, but once it gets going the action rarely pauses in this cross between a spy thriller and a naval adventure – think of the ‘frigate captain’ genre of seafaring stories with a dash of James Bond thrown in. Nathan has to deal with murder, mutiny, hurricanes, shipwreck, pirates, espionage, voodoo, intrigue, rebellions, ship-to-ship naval duels, a land attack on a fort, and still have the energy to do justice to the attentions of the beautiful ex-slave queen La Princesa Negra.
The Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta make for an exotic backdrop, with romantically named places such as The Sea of Sirens and The Mouth of the Serpent. An intricate web of political intrigue extends from the revolution and war in Europe to the European colonies in the Caribbean and North America, further complicated by the nearby presence of the burgeoning United States, officially neutral but possibly not averse to fishing profitably in troubled waters. I was unfamiliar with the history, so the political background was a particularly appealing feature.
Nathan’s social background is hardly less diverse or exotic. His father is of solid English gentry stock with suitably conventional views, while his mother Lady Kitty is from a very wealthy American family of French descent and entertains dangerously radical modern ideas, such as the rights of women (she is a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Woman, who appeared in The Time of Terror) and the abolition of slavery. This background provides a plausible mechanism for equipping Nathan with views on slavery and feminism that wouldn’t be out of place today, which probably helps to make him a sympathetic figure for modern readers. I found him a likeable character, a decent individual plagued by self-doubt and still grieving for the woman he loved, though he does tend to get overshadowed by some of the more colourful secondary characters.
Chief among whom is the outrageous Gilbert Imlay, explorer, smuggler, dodgy businessman, spy and all-round adventurer, a historical figure whose real career extended from a sort of proto-CIA agent in the fledgling USA to Revolutionary France, who had an affair with Mary Wollstonecraft and then promptly abandoned her and their infant daughter, and who, according to the historical note, really did hatch a nefarious plot involving the conquest of Louisiana. I wouldn’t call Imlay a hero, at least not as he appears in the novel, but he steals the show. I wonder if he will make a further appearance in the sequel?
For the most part, the novel is written in straightforward modern prose, with only occasional uses of modern expletives such as f-- (in situations where expletives are surely understandable, such as narrowly escaping being eaten by an alligator. I told you this was an all-action yarn). Occasionally the style veers into the prolix, most notably in the climactic shipboard fight scene, e.g.
“Nathan moved to abandon his sedentary position with some alacrity and drew one of his own pistols with the intention of shooting his assailant in the head, but this excellent plan was betrayed by a singular circumstance.”
"The force of this blow was so great, in fact, it caused the sword to lodge in the hatch cover and Nathan was able to draw his own sword and prepare a more adequate defence than he had previously been allowed."
Lines like these are flanked by page-long discourses on Nathan’s memories of his boyhood fencing master and the design and construction of pistols, all in the middle of a brutal hand-to-hand fight. Perhaps the language is aiming for an eighteenth-century flavour, and it certainly makes for a curious contrast with the concomitant blood-and-guts violence, though for me it also had the effect of slowing and distancing the action.
Two useful maps at the beginning of the book show the geography of the Mississippi Delta and the Caribbean, and are invaluable for following the naval and military action. A helpful ‘History’ note at the end sets out the history on which the novel is based, very useful for readers (like me) who are not especially familiar with the period. (As is so often the case, the most unlikely-sounding aspects of the plot turn out to be true). The novel doesn’t so much end as pause to catch its breath, deliberately untying at least one loose end in the plot which is presumably going to make a major contribution to the next instalment.
All-action yarn of espionage and naval warfare set against the exotic backdrop of the Caribbean and North American colonies in the aftermath of the French Revolution.