I’m gamely trying to keep up with new releases within my historical fiction genre and the sub-genre of Age of Sail novels. Recently I finished reading J.D. Davies’s Gentleman Captain and before that S. Thomas Russell’s Under Enemy Colors. Davies’s book is his first work of fiction, though he has published non-fiction books. Russell’s Under Enemy Colors is one in a series of naval fiction books.
Under Enemy Colors: I found Russell’s well-defined, forward-moving plot very refreshing in a genre that sometimes relies a bit too much on character and not enough story. To me there should be a balance, and Russell accomplished that. His attention to detail when it came to the working of a ship and other naval aspects was helpful and interesting without being overpowering or pompous. An example of a writer being too heavy-handed with “look-at-how-much-I-know-about-things-you-don’t-know” was an historical novel in which two characters were engaged in a duel with swords, and the writer explained every single move with fencing jargon, etc. Now I took lessons in fencing and even I hadn’t heard some of the words he bandied about. What is the point of explaining something if your average reader isn’t going to understand what the heck you’re explaining? Overkill. Things that only make readers skim over that section.
Russell’s prose was not, of course, on the level of Patrick O’Brian, but he was very readable. My qualms were more about the characters. The protagonist was a bit too perfect and things went his way so many times that it smacked of contrivance on occasion. The antagonist was so one-dimensional that I found it impossible to believe him as written. However, with all that said, Under Enemy Colors is still a worthwhile read.
Gentleman Captain: What encouraged me to buy this novel was the era in which it takes place–after Charles II is restored to the throne. So many novels in the Age of Sail genre take place during the Napoleonic era. To me, that era has been written to death. Davies is known for his extensive knowledge of the Royal Navy in the 1600’s (an era in which my Jack Mallory stories take place) so that intrigued me as well.
I’ll start by admitting I hate first-person point of view. There, I’ve said it for the world to see. To me it’s too limiting. As a reader I want to know much more than one single character can impart. So I winced when I bought this book and found it to be written in first person. But I forged onward.
Another unique and refreshing aspect to this novel is the main setting: Scotland. First time I’ve read an Age of Sail novel that took place there. Beyond that, I enjoyed Davies’s prose. I always admire someone who can teach me new words. And that is when I love my Kindle even more–the built-in dictionary that allows me to instantly access the definition of any word in the novel I’m reading.
Overall I liked the characters, especially the wide variety and particularly the common seaman (and the specifics of Cornwall men I also found interesting). My one complaint about the protagonist was his appalling lack of basic seamanship. While I won’t argue with Davies’s knowledge of the “gentleman captains” of that particular era, I still found it hard to believe that even a raw landsman wouldn’t at least pick up the name of the masts and a few of the lines after spending the amount of time he spent on his first command. I know Davies no doubt did this to allow the reader to be educated at the same time as the protagonist, but it just seemed a bit silly to me. My time on board sailing ships is limited, but even I picked up a lot in just a short time.
Overall, I found Gentleman Captain to be a good read, and I would indeed consider reading any follow-up novels Davies may produce.