David Donachie,
Nelson & Emma #1: On a Making Tide
(Orion, 2000; McBooks, 2003)

I don't know as much about the life of Horatio Nelson, perhaps the greatest naval hero in British history, as I'd like. I know next to nothing about Emma Lyon, the future Lady Hamilton, his infamous mistress.

If David Donachie is to be believed, Nelson's life put the likes of Hornblower and Aubrey to shame. But, as Donachie hastens to note in a note at the end of On a Making Tide, this book -- like those of Hornblower and Aubrey -- is a work of fiction.

On a Making Tide is the first in a three-volume series, Nelson & Emma. As historical fiction, it's hard to know which pieces to take away as gospel and which to put down to Donachie's fertile imagination. From a storytelling perspective, however, it doesn't matter -- the book is an unqualified success.

Donachie introduces us to his main characters in their early years -- and their lives couldn't be more different. Nelson, the son of a widowed Anglican clergyman, has many siblings but his mother is long since dead. He is taking his first steps toward a naval career as a 13-year-old midshipman in the fleet. Emma, several years his junior and being raised by a single mother, is being given an opportunity for education through her mother's lover's good graces. Eventually, she moves into a position as a maid, but the life fails to satisfy her; she dreams of something better.

Both youngsters mature at their own pace. His, after a brief detour for experience on a merchant vessel, takes a steady course up through the naval ranks. Hers strives for a life in theater, but takes her in an even less reputable direction. As Donachie would have it, their paths even crossed a time or two, although neither would realize the significance of those brief and passing encounters.

The book has some flaws, such as the great gap in Nelson's life that leaves us in one chapter with him as a brash, bold second lieutenant and picks up a few chapters later with him as a newly appointed captain, apparently after some great successes in the meantime against the rebelling Americans. I couldn't help but feel I missed some vital details in his life. Also, the author focuses just a bit too much attention on some of the less savory things going on belowdecks that felt, in the context of this novel, awkward and out of place.

But those are niggling criticisms compared to an overall scope and execution that is breathtaking to read. Donachie juggles the tales of these two characters deftly, making both of them rich, lively and fully three-dimensional. One provides the flavor of life at sea in a time of turbulent global war and politics, while the other supplies a taste of London society that is rarely seen. The level of detail here is extraordinary, and monolithic figures from British history come to life with keen insight and an approach that is refreshing, to say the least.

On a Making Tide had barely hit my nightstand, more than 400 pages spent, before the sequel, Tested by Fate, was in my hands and open to page 1. This is a remarkable book, and I hope it proves to be an equally remarkable series.

book review by
Tom Knapp

10 March 2012

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