David Wesley Hill,
At Drake's Command
(Temurlone, 2012)

Peregrine James, a young cook of some note in Plymouth, England, in 1577, has exhibited poor taste in women and, consequently, stands to be whipped in the public square for a theft he didn't commit. He pleads with a passing fleet commander for an escape, but the gentleman in question -- no less than Francis Drake -- decides a good flogging will be the measure of the man.

Satisfied, Drake welcomes Perry aboard his flagship Pelican as an assistant galley cook -- and Perry, frankly, is happy to see Plymouth disappear over the horizon, although neither he nor anyone else in the ship's crew knows their final destination.

But his adventures begin before they even leave port, as he first discovers a plot to scuttle the voyage, then rides on a vital mission to consult the mystical royal adviser John Dee. Soon enough, however, the Pelican and her fleet have set sail for parts unknown.

This book by David Wesley Hill is a fascinating look at the life of a British seaman long before the usual fare -- the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Accordingly, Britain is not yet master of the seas, and Drake's fleet is suitably wary of Spanish and Portuguese ships in its path.

Hill has a good handle on the language -- the novel is colorful and interesting, with many a clever turn of phrase. It should satisfy diehard nautical fans, too, although it's not nearly as detailed in that arena as, say, a Forester or O'Brian.

While many of the characters here are real -- and Hill paints them as very real people, not larger-than-life figures from history -- our protagonist is a fictional addition to the crew. Through his eyes, readers get to see quite a lot of adventure unfold, with life-threatening brushes with danger in the nature of camels, courtesans and crunchy rat pie.

The story is told in first person, and Perry makes for an amiable, likable narrator. The perspective is a little problematic at times, however -- when, for instance, Perry arrives for the first time at a ship or a house and instantly relates to the reader details that he hasn't yet seen. Overall, though, Perry provides a strong narrative voice to the action as it develops.

He's resourceful, too, as well as witty and perhaps a bit too honest and idealistic for his own good. His good intentions don't always lead in the direction he hoped -- but he'll learn, no doubt, if he survives the cliffhanger that ends this book.

When does the next volume arrive, David?

book review by
Tom Knapp

3 August 2013

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