Book Review: Brewer’s Revenge

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.

 

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Book Review: Britannia’s Gamble

Britannia’s Gamble
The Dawlish Chronicles: March 1884—February 1885
by Antoine Vanner

A Discovered Diamond Review and Book of the Month

Following my previous read of Britannia’s Spartan, Nicholas Darwish returns in Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Gamble, sixth in his series chronicling the life and adventures of the Victorian era Royal Navy officer. This time we see him recruited for a mission placing him within grasp of a savage Islamist revolt across the Sudan, his key objective being to reach and rescue General Charles Gordon, who maintains a weakening defensive position within the lone holdout, the city of Khartoum. Plagued by one catastrophe after another, time runs short as Dawlish contemplates and questions his own motives and role in the operation, and their position becomes ever more desperate.

My “discovery” of Antoine Vanner’s novels came quite by chance in that I’d won a copy of Britannia’s Spartan in a contest, and it set me happily back onto the course of nautical adventures. I found Dawlish to be a likeable character who poses authentic questions of ethics and morality to himself and, while he has high expectations of others, is no less demanding of his own conduct. In the pages of Gamble, too, he is courageous, though not without fear.

The felucca edged across, the oars still, now only the current carrying it forward in absolute silence. Dawlish crouched like Shand and the Sussexes in cramped discomfort. He tugged at the lanyard of his holstered pistol—an action that was by now an unconscious habit—and pushed the safety catch forward on his Winchester. The same fear was on him now as he had first experienced as a mud-plastered boy in a ditch in China and he prayed that, as then, it would not master him. Each man around him would be feeling no less. Courage was conquest of fear, not its absence.

 One of the best elements of Vanner’s tales is that they take readers to locales many of us don’t know much about, or recognize in a broader view or modern context. As we progress through the story, the author utilizes documented historical figures or actions—such as Gordon or the Siege of Khartoum—within his plot, its population increasing with fictional characters whose roles are so smoothly matched with history we sometimes think we might look them up to discern who is real and not. All the while their experiences tell us even more of the place at this time: its geography, conditions, influence, challenges, allies and workable military strategy.

I also thoroughly enjoy the manner in which Vanner truly takes readers on board his vessels, immersing us in the naval and shipboard terminology without drowning our senses—a perfect combination of trusting readers without making unreasonable demands on their previous knowledge. Feeling a part of the crew, readers rejoice in their victories and feel their hearts sink when things go wrong.

In Britannia’s Gamble, there are plenty of things that can go south, and they do. Vanner’s expertise in storytelling is such that we follow his narrative and sometimes recognize on oncoming crisis, pulling in our breath along with his characters, in whose journey and mission we have invested. Maps are sprinkled through the novel, so we get a sense and better idea of where the group is as they travel overland or upriver, with even more suspense at such moments as when we know we are close to Khartoum, or dangerous passages, when that internal uh oh occurs.

Another great characteristic of the author’s presentation is that he makes plenty of room for readers to bond with characters apart from Dawlish. He most definitely maintains the spotlight, but true to his character, he gladly gives due recognition. A talented and accomplished naval officer, Dawlish also cares about the dignity of humanity, and this stirs childhood and professional memories as well as gnaws at his ideas of the future, particularly following one incident that will undoubtedly alter the course of his life, and even the nature of his concern for others.

Dawlish himself contemplates his own perspectives by way of his journal, an activity that sets up the possibility that the chronicles are drawn from the diaries as the captain looks back upon his life. We see his immediate musings, which of course reflect upon the kind of person he is. “Night fell, not darkness absolute, but the same vast unfeeling dome of stars that had mocked the pettiness of their aspirations ever since Kurgel.” He often thinks of his wife, Florence, back home, perhaps dreading her response to something he’s done, or feels delight in her presence in his life. The variety and breadth of his meditations even develop the character of the absent Florence, additionally bringing to the novel a female influence other than that of the standard lovable prostitute or sought-after heiress.

These and other angles are what tend to make Dawlish himself more fully developed than many other nautical or historical fiction characters, and Vanner placing him in the various locales, following plotlines drawn from history with plenty of his own life events depicted within, are surely what bring us back time and again. Of course, so far I’ve only read two of The Dawlish Chronicles, but the officer hasn’t seen the last of me, nor I of him.

A smooth and addicting read, Britannia’s Gamble is fully capable as a standalone or installment in a series one simply cannot get enough of. Realistic action scenes—in which victory is not always assured—and a well-developed plot combine with the strength of the author’s imagination and impressive research to bring a story of great quality and years of re-visitation and the seeking of Dawlish in other volumes in which we will follow him time and again around the world.

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Learn more about and follow Antoine Vanner and his work at his fascinating website, The Dawlish Chronicles, including more about Britannia’s Amazon, also a Discovered Diamond, with Florence Dawlish as protagonist and narrated from a female point of view. Additionally, subscribers to Vanner’s mailing list at intervals receive free short stories that fill in some gaps in Darwish’s life not covered in the novels.

The author provided the blogger with a copy of
Britannia’s Gamble in order to facilitate an honest review.

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This review previously appeared at The Review

 

Book Review: Britannia’s Spartan

Britannia’s Spartan
The Dawlish Chronicles: June 1859, April – August 1882
by Antoine Vanner

In this captivating nautical historical fiction adventure, Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Spartan takes us east, a welcome change in setting for those of us new to the series chronicling the life of Nicholas Dawlish, RN.

As captain of the newly commissioned HMS Leonidas, Dawlish is tasked with a voyage of mechanical testing. His 1882 tour finds him, however, smack in the middle of a clash of political wills as the Crown, China, Japan and Russia all seek to influence the still-isolated Korea, as diplomatic protocol and demands dictate his balance. Encountering various power brokers, he must constantly assess their motives against the narratives they present. As his diplomatic and political abilities are tested, military clashes breach his mission, which soon enough becomes nearly one of survival.

Our first foray into The Dawlish Chronicles by way of winning Britannia’s Spartan in a contest, it seemed appealing for its setting, and upon reading does not disappoint. Vanner skillfully weaves in background information on Victorian class tensions, technological advancements of the era, seafaring culture and tactical pursuits, to name a few. As events heat up, Dawlish’s responses are authentic, and his military inititatives—especially when taking grand chances that could destroy his career—are intense in their nail-biting thrill.

Vanner’s own abilities, such as spinning information new to many readers (e.g. nautical terms, military tactics), are impressively developed, and his descriptive prowess takes the breath away. His attention to detail enables succinct coverage of unfamiliar situations, and readers quickly become vested in what happens to the captain and his crew. An engaging tale of a time and view to cultures often unexplored by readers of historical fiction, Britannia’s Spartan is an outstanding seafaring story that continually calls, and I suspect readers—including this one—will happily hear more of that in the rest of the series.