08 July, 2010

The Tide of War, by Seth Hunter. Book review

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.”

and
"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.

14 comments:

Annis said...

I had a similar experience while reading Isabel Allende's "Island Beneath the Sea" - review here -which has in some ways a similar setting- Haiti, Cuba and French Louisiana during the French Revolutionary period. It's a dramatic and violent period, yet the author holds the reader at a frustrating distance from the story.

This puzzled me until I read an interview with Allende in which she says that she found reading about the horrific conditions for slaves on Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) made her physically ill. I realised then that she coped by distancing herself from the events she found so disturbing. However in doing so she also prevents the reader from becoming fully involved in the story.

Sounds as if your author may have been indulging in another technique I've noticed quite often lately in HF, though- a tendency to deus ex machina-style addition of information which often feels rather clunky. (Eg. main character explains to himself or another character details about which they would already have been perfectly familiar) This impedes the flow and has the effect of dragging the reader out of the story.

One of the things I particularly admired about "Paths of Exile" was the way you seamlessly included a lot of information without slowing down the story - it's a real art :).

Rick said...

How on earth does he get off to 'a slow start' and still have room for all of that in 427 pages? I'm exhausted just reading the review!

I have the usual mixed feelings about things like the F word being used in anything but its literal sense. (And even there, why not the jolly 'roger'?)

But that said, it sounds as if the author has great fun basically doing Pirates of the Caribbean in a historically accurate setting.

The poor Gulf of Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!

Carla said...

Annis - that's interesting re Isabel Allende. I haven't read that book.
I believe in SF that's known as the "As you know, Bob" technique. SF, fantasy and historical fiction all have the same task of building a world for the reader to step into that isn't the same as the reader's everyday world, and indeed the fact that it is different is part of the attraction. But although it's new to the reader it's familiar to the characters, since they live there, so the author has the conundrum of explaining it to the reader without having the chracters explain it to each other. Not easy! One way to do it is to have a central character who doesn't already have much of the knowledge, such as a new recruit, a young person or child or a foreigner. In Lord of the Rings Frodo doesn't know all that much about the Ring or the history of Middel-Earth, and the other hobbits know even less, so Gandalf and Aragorn explain it to the hobbits as the story goes along and, by extension, to the reader. It does depend on having a character to whom the information is new, though. A character explaining things to him/herself often works quite well, I think - it's natural for people to mull over events and information they already know when they are trying to come to terms with something or make a decision.
Thank you for the compliment - what a lovely thing to say!

Rick - Well, it fairly gallops once it gets going :-) Or whatever the nautical equivalent would be. Yes, I can imagine the author had great fun with it, packing in one set-piece after another. It looks as if the next book is back in Europe, judging from the ending of this one, so I don't think we get to see any more of the Gulf of Mexico and the slave rebellions.

Carla said...

Annis - that's interesting re Isabel Allende. I haven't read that book.
I believe in SF that's known as the "As you know, Bob" technique. SF, fantasy and historical fiction all have the same task of building a world for the reader to step into that isn't the same as the reader's everyday world, and indeed the fact that it is different is part of the attraction. But although it's new to the reader it's familiar to the characters, since they live there, so the author has the conundrum of explaining it to the reader without having the chracters explain it to each other. Not easy! One way to do it is to have a central character who doesn't already have much of the knowledge, such as a new recruit, a young person or child or a foreigner. In Lord of the Rings Frodo doesn't know all that much about the Ring or the history of Middel-Earth, and the other hobbits know even less, so Gandalf and Aragorn explain it to the hobbits as the story goes along and, by extension, to the reader. It does depend on having a character to whom the information is new, though. A character explaining things to him/herself often works quite well, I think - it's natural for people to mull over events and information they already know when they are trying to come to terms with something or make a decision.
Thank you for the compliment - what a lovely thing to say!

Rick - Well, it fairly gallops once it gets going :-) Or whatever the nautical equivalent would be. Yes, I can imagine the author had great fun with it, packing in one set-piece after another. It looks as if the next book is back in Europe, judging from the ending of this one, so I don't think we get to see any more of the Gulf of Mexico and the slave rebellions.

Carla said...

Annis - that's interesting re Isabel Allende. I haven't read that book.
I believe in SF that's known as the "As you know, Bob" technique. SF, fantasy and historical fiction all have the same task of building a world for the reader to step into that isn't the same as the reader's everyday world, and indeed the fact that it is different is part of the attraction. But although it's new to the reader it's familiar to the characters, since they live there, so the author has the conundrum of explaining it to the reader without having the chracters explain it to each other. Not easy! One way to do it is to have a central character who doesn't already have much of the knowledge, such as a new recruit, a young person or child or a foreigner. In Lord of the Rings Frodo doesn't know all that much about the Ring or the history of Middel-Earth, and the other hobbits know even less, so Gandalf and Aragorn explain it to the hobbits as the story goes along and, by extension, to the reader. It does depend on having a character to whom the information is new, though. A character explaining things to him/herself often works quite well, I think - it's natural for people to mull over events and information they already know when they are trying to come to terms with something or make a decision.
Thank you for the compliment - what a lovely thing to say!

Rick - Well, it fairly gallops once it gets going :-) Or whatever the nautical equivalent would be. Yes, I can imagine the author had great fun with it, packing in one set-piece after another. It looks as if the next book is back in Europe, judging from the ending of this one, so I don't think we get to see any more of the Gulf of Mexico and the slave rebellions.

Gabriele C. said...

Heh, you posted that comment three times, Carla. Looks like Blogger had a hiccup again.

I'm not sure about this one. I'm one of the rare people to whom the whole pirates along the American coast doesn't appeal as book setting (though I enjoyed the first Pirates of the Carribean movie).

Rick said...

Another SF term is 'tell me, Professor.'

The task is potentially easier now than 50 years ago, and not just in science fiction, because the idea of exotic settings is more familiar to audiences. Readers have more sense of how to pick up and interpret small cues.

A standard SF example is 'the door dilated,' as quickly telling the reader they're in a future tech where doors dilate instead of just opening. Similarly a line like 'The old king, bless his soul, knew nothing of it,' provides a wealth of political background information.

Annis said...

Re use of the "F' word, kudos to the author of a medieval tale I read recently who went with "mother-swyving" as being at least a more period-appropriate interpretation of a modern epithet!

I like the "As you know, Bob" technique :) It's not that I have an objection to the technique as such, just that it shouldn't jump out at the reader but fit into the storyline without being overly obvious. Not sure if I'm becoming more perceptive (unlikely) picky (possible) or if it's just that I've been unlucky lately in reading several novels written by authors having trouble with it.

Carla said...

Gabriele - um, yes, Blogger was playing up when I tried to post the comment. Ah well, one can't complain about a free system :-)

This isn't really Pirates of the Caribbean - it doesn't have the comedy or the paranormal elements, it has rather more of a plot, and there's no Johnny Depp (Imlay probably comes closest...). The main plot is the political intrigue around Louisiana, with the pirates providing action set-pieces.

Rick - That's an interesting point - do you think readers have changed that much? I can see that readers familiar with Star Trek and Star Wars might find it easier to pick up on your first example, though your second strikes me as the sort of sly aside Jane Austen might have written.

Annis - depending on the rest of the context, I might find mother-swyving more startling than its modern equivalent, but I agree with you, kudos to the author for coming up with it! I also quite like having things explained to me; my guess is that "As you know, Bob" became a term in SF as a reaction to some really clunky exposition in story magazines and novels that might be considered, ahem, less than classic. Rick is better qualified to comment on this than me, he's the SF expert.

It may just be that having noticed and disliked a clunky explanation in one book, you become more on the alert for it in others and notice it more. That could account for why they seem to come in clusters, maybe?

Man of la Books said...

Excellent review. I love historical fiction myself. Talking about Isabel Allende, did anyone read her reinvention of Zorro?

She did a lot of reserach and its an interesting read about California, New Mexico and New Orleans - and a great book as well.

Zohar
http://manoflabook.com

Carla said...

Hello and welcome. I haven't read Isabel Allende's Zorro novel yet.

Rick said...

Alas, you're right that my example doesn't fit my argument. Jane Austen could indeed have written something like that (especially since it would fit George III rather well).

I'm not sure what a better example would be. Come to think of it, in the case of hist fic the 'reading protocols' must have been developed and learned in the 19th century, when the genre developed.

Carla said...

I suspect it fits, or could be made to fit, quite a lot of kings over the years. Very, very few will have been canny enough to keep a handle on all the politicking going on around their courts, many will have started to lose their grip through age and/or illness, and quite a few seem not to have had much of a grip to begin with. Your second example is essentially saying something about people and their relationships, not about the setting as such, and people have no doubt been making dubious plots behind the back of the supposed leader since the days of Ug the cave man, and will no doubt continue to so so until the end of time.

HF worldbuilding is in some respects easier than SF and in some respects harder. Easier because there are surviving tales from the past and sometimes surviving artefacts, like castle ruins or classical temples, to give readers a bit of an anchor point, whereas SF deals with the future and by definition there are no tales or artefacts from the future. Harder because readers may have a preconception of the past (especially if it has been extensively Hollywood-ised, e.g. ancient Rome), whereas SF can be more of a clean slate. Fairy tales are often set in a nebulous 'past' world, with castles and knights and swords and such, so to some extent HF and fantasy has that very long cultural tradition to draw on.

Rick said...

To the frustration of hard core geeks like me, Hollywood has also established some viewer preconceptions about the future!