Thursday, February 10, 2011
From the shelves of the Paco library
The age of fighting sail has become a crowded field for novelists, but there’s always room for another good one, and I have no reservations in declaring S. Thomas Russell to be a top-notch contender.
Under Enemy Colors is Russell’s inaugural entry in the genre and it is a fascinating page-turner. The action is set in the early years of the French Revolution, and features Lieutenant Charles Hayden of His Majesty’s Navy, an experienced, fighting officer who, due to his lack of influence, still yearns for a commission as a post captain. He is offered a chance at future advancement by one of the lords of the admiralty in return for tackling a highly distasteful duty: serve as first lieutenant aboard the Themis, captained by Josiah Hart, a tyrannical and “shy” captain whose timidity at sea is frowned upon by many in the service, but whose interest (through his wealthy and aristocratic wife) has heretofore protected him from censure. It is ostensibly Hayden’s job to provide assistance to Hart, but there is another game afoot, as Hayden’s new patron is actually working behind the scenes to rid the service of an officer who is known as a shirker in time of war.
Hayden takes up his new commission and spends several weeks trying to turn the demoralized crew into something resembling a fighting force. His task is greatly complicated by a number of sinister incidents, including the murder of one of the top-men and signs of mutinous intentions on the part of the crew. When the captain returns and comes aboard, he instantly begins insulting Hayden and otherwise carrying on with his customary arrogance. Yet his bluster is reserved almost exclusively for his officers and crew; he is astonishingly reluctant to engage the French. During the captain’s frequent bouts of indisposition, however, Hayden leads the ship to victory in a couple of daring actions, and, placed in charge of one of the prizes, rescues the Themis, which, without Hayden’s presence and influence, has finally succumbed to mutiny.
The book is peopled with memorable characters: the ship’s laconic doctor, Griffiths; Mr. Hawthorne, lieutenant of Marines; the occasionally choleric Mr. Able Barthe, the ship’s master; and young Lord Arthur Wickham, a highly intelligent and courageous midshipman. There is enough nautical lingo to please the most exacting armchair admiral, and the action is realistic and fast-paced. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am pleased to report that the second volume in the series, A Battle Won, is also now available.