Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
“The rencontre took place early in the evening under a storm-darkening sky, with just enough daylight remaining to preclude the accidents that plague swordplay at dusk and in darkness. The wind had risen, bringing with it the chill of river and sea; this, along with the approaching sunset, and the location on the outskirts of the city, kept witnesses where they belong, that is to say, away.”
So starts Benerson Little’s debut work of fiction, Fortune’s Whelp, in smooth follow-up to the pirate historian’s previous works of non-fiction. Enclosed by approaching night in a violent scenario, Scotsman Edward MacNaughton plunges fast forward through land and sea adventure and into discovery of an attempt to assassinate King William III. As the Jacobite plot’s date draws nearer, MacNaughton must identify who around him conspires for their own ends or toward political gain, willing to take him down in the process—and this includes the women he finds himself involved with.
From the opening scene through to the conclusion of Fortune’s Whelp, Little’s narrative wraps itself around us as we are glued to the edges of our seats—miss our bus stops, lose track of bedtime, leave dinner to burn—with a tension so thick it preoccupies us even after the fearsome moments have passed.
Perhaps it is MacNaughton’s magnetic draw of intrigue, or the historical details, mundane and enthralling alike, that Little weaves through his tale—the elements of reality that haunt the reading and our tendency to read rapidly, as if fast-flipping pages might get our protagonist more swiftly away from those who track him—that amp up the tension and render this novel one not easily surrendered to the tasks of daily life. This anxiety-provoking is exacerbated by Edward himself, who frequently confirms reader suspicion with acknowledgements of perilous moments, such as when he “sensed dangerous eyes upon him.”
MacNaughton is written as a hybrid of questionable romantic hero and admirably devilish villain, and he does indeed doubt or reprimand himself as he moves about in his world as described by his creator in a fashion that brings us as close as we could get to it: this age is described so in detail, though without relying on detail description. Instead, elements stitch themselves in and around all aspects of MacNaughton’s movements, from an appearance of Spanish brandy to his mockery of a naval officer (“doubtless your mother paid for your commission”) and his progression-via-instinct through a series of streets and alleys when attempting to find while simultaneously avoid an enemy. We are given glimpses and understanding as to how the era operates, with a toss of humor here and there, for relief as well as to show another side of the time.
“I’ve seen that bugger around here before; he talks a lot but won’t pay for anything.”
Edward gave the woman the coin. His reason suggested this was part of a trap; his instinct considered it unlikely. In either case, he was on his guard against two potential enemies.
“Come with me.”
“You’ve just tipped me the wink, and I’ve paid, haven’t I? To Walter Lane, then to a place we’ll be safe from his eyes.”
“If you want to dock, it’ll cost you more.”
“Pardon me, mistress, but you’re pricing your wares a bit high, aren’t you?”
“I’m worth every penny and shilling of a guinea,” she replied indignantly.
“I believe you,” Edward said sincerely.
Little’s narrative is written at such a pace that we seem at times to make haste along with MacNaughton, with a smoothness that carries us along, always wanting to keep going. Transitions are seamless and one scrape or another all are linked by events and associations, so we clearly see the story is much more than a series of adventures in the life of any man: MacNaughton has goals in mind, if only he can safely make his way to them before plots and pitfalls find him first.
MacNaughton is his own man though he is also, as the novel’s title indicates, fortune’s whelp. Bred on adventure and fed with swashbuckling plot twists, our protagonist frequently courts fate even as he faces down his enemies, be they actual persons or probing anxiety in a darkened alley. Daring, energetic and skilled, he is nevertheless written with flaws that could easily brand him as real as the historical figures who make appearances in Fortune’s Whelp.
Any reviewer would be remiss to ignore the fight scenes in this novel: thrilling and of the nail-biting variety because we know MacNaughton isn’t an always-victorious two-dimensional character, Little sets them up so expertly that upon commencement we hear the clash of weapons, smell the salt in the air, gain our footing as we establish purchase within the skirmish, right along with the characters.
Edward watched him warily; the man was surely full of tricks. He might pull a pistol, hurl dirt or snuff in his eyes, or dart his sword at him.
“Behind you, sir! The watch!” the man shouted at Edward.
Edward turned his head just enough to draw the man’s attack, then, as it was dark and difficult to follow a blade with the eyes, made a round parry, found the blade, and thrust swiftly. Sensing his adversary’s counter-parry, he turned his sword hand up, allow it angulate around his adversary’s parry, and, covering with his left hand as he thrust, hit his adversary just below the right collarbone.”
The author not only provides explanations for those unfamiliar with sword fighting terminology, but also does it in a manner in which readers can choose for themselves how often to stem the flow of reading to refer to the notes, or not to at all. Following his conclusion, Little adds several sets of notes, including those on swordplay with an alphabetical listing of particular terms and their meanings (separate from the glossary, which cuts down on all-over-the-map searches). It is great fun to act out the fights, even at a slower pace, to have a greater appreciation of what MacNaughton is up against.
Many books, perhaps even most, reveal to readers more information upon subsequent reads and re-reads, and it is rewarding when we realize these small surprises. Fortune’s Whelp is one in which readers finish, close the book and know ahead of time this is in store for them. With so much history written within a novel of intrigue, and daring revealed within the history, there is an instinctive understanding that this is a book to re-read, and this reviewer answered that summons—interestingly enough even though Jacobite plotting and seventeenth-century history isn’t generally where my interests reside.
For those who love a great tale, written with engaging and realistic characters who call you to their side, for seafaring types and landlubbers alike, Fortune’s Whelp is a compelling and captivating novel whose fate it is to draw readers over and over again.
About the author …
Born in Key West, Florida, Benerson Little grew up variously on all three US coasts. Following his graduation from Tulane University, he entered the US Navy and served as an officer for eight years, most of them as a Navy SEAL. Upon completion of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in 1983 (BUD/S Class 121), he was assigned first to SEAL Team THREE, then to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE. After leaving the Navy in 1989, he worked as a special operations and intelligence analyst, including for the Naval Special Warfare Strategy and Tactics Group and for a private intelligence collection and analysis firm, among other professions.
He now works as a writer and consultant in several areas, with an emphasis on maritime and naval issues, including maritime threat and security, and especially maritime history. He is considered a leading expert on piracy past and present, and is a recognized expert on pirate tactics and anti-piracy operations throughout history. He has appeared in two television documentaries on piracy, has advised on others, and is the STARZ premium cable network’s historical consultant for its Black Sails series, currently filming its third season. He often advises film-makers, novelists, historians, biographers, genealogists, treasure hunters, journalists, and others.
Author photo courtesy Benerson Little.
A copy of Fortune’s Whelp was provided to the blogger in order to produce an honest review.