The Captain’s Nephew by Philip K. Allan
I was very keen to read Book I, The Captain’s Nephew, in Philip K. Allan’s The Alexander Clay Series. Since early childhood I’ve loved stories on or of the sea, though I’d gone adrift in recent years, and Allan wastes no time from the first page in getting me hooked all over again. His prologue, introducing an unnamed character, serves to mystify visually as well as present a sneak peek to wrap readers up in a narrative not to be cast off. His verbiage from the start maximizes utility while still presenting as fluid and gorgeous, with such realism that we can virtually see the scene as it occurs.
A blast of grapeshot flashed the surface with a fan of white. As the froth of bubbles disappeared, the individual balls fell like slow hailstones all around him.
The churned surface of the sea was above his head, the ceiling of a lofty room that he stretched for but could not reach. The whole mass [of his uniform] dragged him down, down into the heavy, jade-green water. His movements became leaden as exhaustion slowed him. He was becoming caught like a fly in hardening amber.
As nations move toward a new era, late eighteenth-century naval battles still dominate the world in which Lieutenant Alexander Clay lives and works. Eager to prove himself on his own merit, rather than via the established form of patronage, he is frustrated to find his achievements consistently credited to the nephew of his commanding officer, Captain Percy Follett. As subtle misattribution transforms into deliberate, unmistakable blockage, however, Lieutenant Clay begins to recognize that nepotism may be the least of his problems.
As Clay’s difficulties multiply, he also experiences some pleasant moments in a riveting and smooth chronicle that reminds readers why Britain’s navy made their nation the superpower of the era. A mixture of bold and cunning, daring and courageous, they examine situations and options, take their roles aboard ship seriously and do their duty with aplomb and austerity, occasionally opening to each other about their lives on land. To this end Allan provides bits of backstory for other characters beside the most prominent, a tactic I found to increase the engagement between account and audience, affecting identification of these people as individuals rather than merely a cast of characters whose names blur into each other as the tale progresses. Not all are followed up on, which is appropriate, though the lot of one in particular, whose characterization develops to a slightly more middling level, is left incomplete, which signals another rarity: a draw for the novel’s sequel that does not exasperate readers for its unfinished business. Allan has indeed charted his course wisely in this manner.
I also simply delighted in the naval terminology the author incorporates into his narrative—even wishing for more. Though the protocol for form of address by proxy to the ship’s captain varies slightly from how I understood it to follow, it was nevertheless a thrill to read such shipboard etiquette observed. This would include referring to junior officers as “Mr. So and So” or permissions to board or disembark and so on. It brings readers that much closer to the culture of the nautical without drowning them in jargon.
Indeed, even landlubbers will find something to adore in The Captain’s Nephew—a seafaring adventure that does a fantastic job portraying society of the time, clearly maps out paths to the battles engaged and scenes set off the coast of western Europe and the Caribbean as well as the adventures that carry them from one to the next. Dangerous conditions, mysterious circumstances, ruthless pirates, overcoming obstacles to romance—and all while navigating the personal and professional politics within which Clay must operate, told by a storyteller well-versed in his craft, it is a tale to re-visit time and again as we eagerly await the next.
Book III: On the Lee Shore
Clay returns home from the Caribbean to recover from his wounds, but is soon called on by the Admiralty to take command of a troubled ship. The Titan has mutinied under its previous sadistic captain. Stationed amongst the reefs and rocks of the Brittany coast to watch over the French naval base at Brest, he finds the dangers of this notorious lee shore and its French defenders are the least of his worries. Corrupt officers, determined mutineers and rebellious Irishman all combine to insure that the main threat that he must face comes from within the wooden walls of his ship.
Available May 2018
A copy of The Captain’s Nephew was provided to the
blogger in order to facilitate an honest review.