Brewer’s Revenge: A Sea Novel by James Keffer
It starts straight away: the fog surrounding the Mary Elizabeth speaks of pirates known to litter the Caribbean and gives shape to passenger fears, further rattled by the ship’s clanging bell as terrors come to life and their captain is amongst the casualties. Some months later, Commander William Brewer takes charge of the HMS Revenge, formerly the El Dorado, a pirate sloop hard won in battle and refitted for use in His Majesty’s Navy. Brewer regrets not being given permanent command of the Defiant, owing to his junior officer status, and chooses to set his sights on payback against the pirates who attacked his ship. Very early on, then, does author James Keffer bring us to meet the dual representation of his novel’s title.
But Brewer’s Revenge brings us much more than this: apart from the new captain’s mission in ferreting out the pirates ravaging Caribbean trade routes, he must help his best friend—and ship’s doctor—conquer his drinking habit and the demons that incite it; sort a purser who engages in creative mathematics; and deal with a spoiled midshipman unused to working or taking orders, and who is there only to distance him from a scandal at home.
Fast moving and addictive, Brewer’s Revenge introduces us to the other side of rank—that is to say, we see Admiral Lord Horatio Hornblower as Brewer reports to him, having served under him on St. Helena during Napoleon’s exile there. Keffer also addresses the coming steam power, providing a curious perspective with plenty of food for thought to our modern experience:
“I am not at all convinced that in this case progress is a good thing. It frightens me to think that soon captains will be at the mercy of an exhaustible fuel supply.”
Much of the narrative consists of Brewer learning his job, and events erupt one as a direct result of another or as apparently isolated incidents that Keffer weaves together skillfully, moving the focus away as appropriate and making it difficult to accurately predict what may come to be. The author also has a few surprises up his sleeve as he mixes them in with episodes of the daily variety, as well as the more thrilling for the crew. Skilled at communicating characters’ sense of pressure, he lays out the decisions they must make without spoon feeding, and we feel the tension in races against time or circumstance—sometimes both—as we are privileged to see the individual and not just the character. For Brewer this means being witness to his growth as he struggles to prove his worth in an organization dependent upon responsibility but often run by money.
Most sailors yearn for action, and Brewer’s subordinates are no different. However, Keffer chooses to draw them into the story in preparation, as they get things going and we watch them, oftentimes ourselves learning how it all works. The author plaits these together with such dramas as rivalries or threatening situations to spice it up a bit, and it works marvelously, largely owing to its realistic presentation, but with the touch of human interest. We don’t just see a bar brawl, for example, part of so many seafaring adventures. Keffer takes us beyond them and we get to know the characters in a deeper, richer manner.
The author brings historical figures onto the stage, even if only in reference, such as when Marshal Ney, a French military commander, enters the conversation. And a meeting with Simon Bolivar ups the ante as we come face to face with the real possibilities of our—and the crew’s—imagination. Sharply written naval battle scenes, murder, treachery and fear of being the next one up keeps us all on our toes.
Fluidly written to carry us along on a wave of story absorption, the novel points us toward more tale to come as we set our sights on the fate of the Mary Elizabeth passengers, significance of at least a couple of Keffer’s surprises and the romance developing between Brewer and Elizabeth Danforth, daughter of a governor. Intriguing, daring, human, Brewer’s Revenge will hit the re-read lists many times as we reach out for the next installment.