Silverwood Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-78132-077-8. 310 pages.
Uncorrected advance review copy in PDF format supplied by publisher.
Ripples in the Sand is the fourth in Helen Hollick’s historical fantasy series featuring dashing (ex-)pirate captain Jesamiah Acorne and the white witch Tiola Oldstagh. The series began with Sea Witch (reviewed here earlier), and continued with Pirate Code and then with Bring It Close (reviewed here earlier). The historical figures Henry Jennings and James Stuart (father of Bonnie Prince Charlie) appear as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.
Former pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his wife Tiola are on their way to England to sell a cargo of tobacco from Jesamiah’s plantation in Virginia (not to mention some other valuable items that need not trouble the customs officers). Tiola is seriously ill as a result of the hostility of Tethys, the sea goddess; all white witches have difficulty crossing the sea, but Tethys has a particular feud with Tiola because Tethys wants Jesamiah for herself. Jesamiah is coerced into carrying a passenger, Henry Jennings, ex-pirate and now on a political mission to the English government in which Jesamiah has no interest whatsoever. All Jesamiah wants is to get Tiola safely ashore and to find a buyer for his tobacco (and the unofficial cargo). But Jesamiah soon finds himself embroiled in family ties he did not even know he had, and then entangled in a political plot – at risk from an unknown traitor among the plotters, and from the deadly fury of Tethys.
Fans of the previous books in the series will know what to expect. Despite now being respectably married, a landowner, and (technically at least) no longer a pirate, Jesamiah’s temper, tendency to jump to conclusions and liking for wine and women (not necessarily in that order) still land him in trouble on a regular basis, requiring quick wits, cunning and skill to get himself out again. Tiola’s magical powers and her supernatural conflict with Tethys give the novel a strong fantasy element. The back story of Jesamiah’s complicated family history, Tiola’s supernatural powers and their relationship is explained as required, so although Ripples in the Sand is the fourth in a series, it could be read as a stand-alone. The scene for Ripples in the Sand has shifted from North America and the Caribbean to the North Devon coast, specifically the estuary of the Rivers Taw and Torridge near the edge of Exmoor. Exmoor is, of course, Lorna Doone territory, and some later generations of the notorious Doone family make an ingenious appearance in Ripples in the Sand.
Jesamiah’s complicated family history acquires another layer of complexity in Ripples in the Sand – it’s a wise child that knows its own father, as the saying goes – giving Jesamiah a completely unexpected set of new relatives to come to terms with. Members of Tiola’s family also make an appearance, causing conflict in her relationship with Jesamiah.
The political sub-plot involving an attempted Jacobite invasion makes a dramatic background, and the Monmouth Rebellion and its brutal aftermath a generation earlier still cast a long shadow over some of the characters. There is plenty of action, including sea chases, a naval battle, a shoot-out with the customs men and a jailbreak.
The fantasy plot revolving around the conflict between Tiola and Tethys worked less well for me; I am not well attuned to supernatural powers that actually work (as opposed to beliefs in supernatural powers, a different matter entirely), and I suspect that a lot of it went over my head. I got rather lost in the time travel sequences, although I did like the cameo appearance by not-yet-King Harold Godwinson, a thoroughly decent man even when raiding and probably my favourite of Helen Hollick’s historical characters (he stars in Harold The King / I Am the Chosen King, reviewed here earlier). If I understood the supernatural plot correctly, I think it resolves a plot strand that has been running since Sea Witch; the question of why Tethys has an obsession with claiming Jesamiah for herself.
The political adventure plot does not so much end as take a brief pause for breath, and Jesamiah’s predicament at the end is clearly a potential springboard to a further adventure (according to the Author’s Note a further instalment is indeed planned soon). Jesamiah’s unexpected new family ties, as well as Tiola’s family, may also offer scope for further development.
Dialect is used to indicate regional origin and social standing, from the French accent of the Breton sailing master Claude de la Rue to the broad Devon dialect of the ferryman and tavern keeper. It took me a little while to ‘tune in’ to some of the accents, especially the broad Devon dialect, which I found hard to follow at first. As expected, given the setting, the text is liberally salted with nautical terms, and these are explained in a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book and a plan of a square-rigged ship at the front.
A helpful Author’s Note at the end describes some of the inspiration behind the novel and outlines some of the underlying history. I was interested to see that one of the most attractive characters, a boisterous boy named Thomas Benson, is based on a historical figure and is planned to feature in further instalments.
Historical fantasy set against a background of smuggling and Jacobite rebellion in eighteenth-century Devon.