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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Alaric Bond, master of the Age of Nelson genre

The great advantage of five weeks at sea is the chance to catch up with the TBR (to be read) list, and right at the top of that list were two books in the Alaric Bond "Fighting Sail" series, a treat that I had been putting off for far too long.

The huge advantage was that I was able to read them in sequence, something I really recommend.  So, if you haven't caught up with this series, this is a good time to start.

First, the eighth in the series, HMS Prometheus.

The bloodstirring battles, flamboyant characters, and shipboard lifestyle of the Age of Nelson resonate down the ages.  It could even be said, perhaps, that because of the legendary status of the “little, pigeon-breasted man” — as author Alaric Bond describes Admiral Nelson — that this series of conflicts with the French was the last of the glamorous wars. Since then, mud, blood, and agony characterize battle, and all the gold lace and glory has vanished.

Because of this, too, the era of Napoleon and Nelson is over-populated by novelists. I used to think that C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian had said it all, and the rest is redundant. To Forester and POB, however, I would now add a third, Alaric Bond.  While Bond has not created captains of the mythic status of Aubrey and Hornblower, he has given an eloquent voice to the rest of the floating village at war — the lower deck tar, the surgeon and the surgeon’s wife, the officers, the midshipmen, and the men who served the sails and the guns.  He describes the entire ship’s complement with a kindly and eminently knowledgeable eye. And, most definitely, he can write. 

This, the eighth book in Alaric Bond’s “Fighting Sail” series, begins with Prometheus under repair in the Gibraltar shipyard after what was evidently a savage battle with the French. We are rapidly introduced to a number of interesting characters, such as the enigmatic and relatively elderly midshipman, Franklin, the ship’s captain, Sir Richard Banks, varied and various seamen and officers, and the surgeon and his wife. There are so many people, in fact, that the names become somewhat of a blur, but the reader can relax in the assurance that he or she will get to know them very well indeed.

Back in fighting trim, Prometheus sails from Gibraltar, and not a moment too soon, because antics have been taking place on shipboard and in the shipyard accommodations that are more fitting to a shoreside British pub.  Meeting up with Admiral Nelson and his blockading fleet leads to a challenge, where a daring raid aimed at the destruction of a French ship of line sends the ship’s boats into the range of fire of not one, but two, shore batteries. Action after action follows, as the increasingly damaged Prometheus battles through crisis after crisis.  Then, after another repair at Gibraltar, the motley crew of the war-weary ship meet the greatest challenge yet.  Bond, with masterly control of developing chaos, pictures the final battle with such vivid detail that the denouement, though utterly shocking, seems almost inevitable.

The book has a very satisfying finish – and yet manages to end in a cliffhanger.  I couldn't wait to read the next in this very exciting series, so was overjoyed that Blackstrap Station was waiting on my kindle.

As promised, this ninth book in Bond’s compelling Age of Nelson series, “Fighting Sail,” begins where the last book ended, with the stranding of the crew of the beached HMS Prometheus.  

Christmas Day finds a small group of men, headed by one-armed Lieutenant King, trudging through hostile and barren French countryside in search of food, shelter, and some idea of how to get away without being captured. Then a miracle happens – not just because of a fluke of luck, but because of the extraordinary resourcefulness and courage of their leader.

This novel is a little different, in that King is definitely the major character.  There are other personalities featured, including a strange loner, seaman Weissner, whose character development throughout the story creates a particularly intriguing and satisfying sub-plot. Indeed, there are sub-plots aplenty – the travails of the stranded crewmen, their amazing feat of self-preservation, the humiliating consequences for a young midshipman when his courage fails him, and how he copes with the outcome of his cowardice. Even after King is given a spry little command of his own, there are more side-stories to be told, including the complications introduced by a wicked young siren named Sara. But King holds center stage throughout.  Getting to know him well, to care about him, and having the privilege of knowing what was going on in his heart and mind, was particularly rewarding.

What always strikes me about Alaric Bond’s writing is his obvious love for ships and the sea.  Every word rings true, enhanced by his deep knowledge of the ships of the time, and the seamen who fought to save them from the elements and the enemy.  That there is a glossary is a bonus, but not really necessary, because the author knows his subject so thoroughly, and imparts every detail so well and so accessibly that the reader can share every moment, and participate in every action-packed battle from the comfort of his armchair.

Another inspired and compelling story from a master of the Age of Nelson genre.  The only problem, for me, is that I have to wait for number ten in the series.

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