Thursday, November 18, 2010
From the shelves of the Paco library
One of the things that makes book-browsing so interesting is the occasional instance of sheer serendipity.
I was in a Borders a couple of weeks ago, looking for something in the fiction line (I forget what, exactly), when I saw a book that grabbed my attention. The title - Gentleman Captain - suggested (correctly as it turned out) that the volume was a specimen of nautical fiction. I had never heard of the author, J.D. Davies, but a combination of nice cover art and laudatory dust jacket blurbs made me decide to take a flyer on it. Best move I made all week.
The novel is set in the first couple of years of the Restoration period in England. King Charles II is attempting to manage the difficult task of welding cavaliers and former roundheads into one people again, but, among many other problems, is faced with a shortage of reliable and loyal captains for his warships. Enter our hero, young Matthew Quinton, heir to the earldom of Ravensden, a soldier who had shared his sovereign’s exile, and is now hungering for a commission in the Horse Guards. He is given command of the Happy Restoration, instead, which is promptly wrecked upon a rocky shore during a storm, due largely to Quinton’s complete dependency for nautical guidance on his drunken ship’s master.
This beginning was particularly intriguing to me, because, unlike Hornblower and Aubrey, whom we first encounter in the full bloom of their experience and competency, Quinton has no knowledge at all of the new trade that has been thrust upon him, much to his dismay. Part of the great charm of the book is the unfolding of his education, as he strikes a bargain with master’s mate Kit Farrell (who saved his life in the wreck of the Happy Restoration): Quinton will teach him how to read and write, if Kit will teach his captain the rudiments of navigation and ship-handling.
Quinton must learn quickly, for he is given another ship (King Charles admonishing him “not to lose this one, for God’s sake”), and ordered to proceed on a mission, in company with another vessel captained by a former officer in Cromwell’s navy (the splendidly named Godsgift Judge), to the west coast of Scotland, where trouble is said to be brewing among the Campbells. In addition to his nautical studies and the threat of rebellion, Quinton is faced with the challenge of proving himself to the crew, including Lieutenant Vyvyan, whose uncle had been the previous, and much admired, captain, until he died – murdered, in the opinion of Vyvyan.
Along the way, we are introduced to a host of fascinating characters: Quinton’s sprightly Dutch wife and her dour brother, the aging general, Glenrannoch, of the Campbells, and the self-styled “Countess” of Connaught, the fiery Irish beauty and widow of the head of the MacDonald clan. There are also fine characterizations of Charles II and his brother, James, Duke of York, and realistic depictions of Quinton’s crew, including the chaplain, Francis Gale (more war-like than spiritual, when sober), and the mysterious, and always merry, Frenchman, Roger Le Blanc, a sail-maker whose name appears to be as fictitious as his professed background.
The novel takes numerous twists and turns, as Quinton navigates not only the dangerous waters of the Irish Sea, but the intricate world of English and Scottish politics, where secret dynastic ambitions almost literally blow up in his face. The book culminates in an exciting sea battle between Quinton’s ship and the ship of an ostensible ally who has cunningly deceived him.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that J.D. Davies has written such a fine piece of historical fiction. He is a naval historian and a specialist on the subject of the Royal Navy during the time of Samuel Pepys (here’s his web site). I am absolutely delighted to discover that this is the first in what I hope will be a successful series, and look forward to the publication of the next Quinton yarn early next year.