Wednesday 27 June 2018

A Sloop of War by Philip K. Allan

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

AMAZON US $5.18  

Napoleonic Wars 1800s

A Sloop of War is the second installment in Philip Allan's thoroughly rollicking "Alexander Clay" Napoleonic-era nautical series. It brings just as much excitement and attention to historical detail as the first volume, The Captain’s Nephew, with more nuanced character development as the author adds to his already considerable writing craft and storytelling confidence. These are not the two-dimensional characters often found in lesser examples from this historical fiction subgenre. They are flesh-and-blood men and women, full of crushing anxieties, wild desires, and often shockingly poor judgement, that draw you into their stories.

Allan continues with his deliberate development of his before-the-mast characters, bringing the tangled issue of slavery into the lives of the tars through introduction of a throughly intriguing black sailor who is a runaway slave from a Barbadian sugar plantation. This complex man, Abel Sedgewick, holds the promise of much interesting development in later volumes, particularly since we’re treated to a subplot concerning the anti-slavery ship’s surgeon, Mr. Linfield, and the younger daughter of a Scots-Barbadian planter with rather progressive ideas on the economic inefficiencies of chattel slavery. The author even lets drop a mention of the great abolitionist, William Wilberforce, so no telling where this thread might lead now that he’s started pulling on it.

One of the perennial challenges in writing Age of Sail stories seems to be providing believable female characters. (I recall in the entire 138 minutes of the excellent 2003 film version of Master and Commander, there are exactly two women onscreen for perhaps 15 seconds—in a dinghy trying to sell fresh fruit alongside HMS Surprise.) So far, Mr. Allan has done a commendable job crafting interesting women and imbuing them within strong storylines. There are no seams showing yet from stitching in the ladies, and I trust in the author’s manifest skill to keep things taut and tidy going forward.

Alexander Clay is, of course, back as his tactically brilliant, swashbuckling, headstrong, and rather socially inept self. You can't help but alternately cheer for and scratch your head over Mr. Allan’s protagonist... and I'm confident that's exactly as intended. Many of the more interesting junior officers and ratings are back, including Clay’s loyal best friend, Lieutenant Sutton, and The Captain’s Nephew nemesis, Lieutenant Windham. And of course, there’s enough sea and land combat to slake the martial thirst of the most discerning maritime fiction reader.

If I was forced to find a deficiency—and I shock myself even writing this—the book might have been a little longer. Although at 326 pages A Sloop of War is hardly a novella, I felt a little shortchanged. On the other hand, we’re treated with a deft touch to any number of cliffhangers, major and minor, for the third volume and beyond. So we’ve hardly heard the last of Alexander Clay.

© Jeffrey K. Walker

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