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.
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.
This review previously appeared at The Review