Alexander Kent,
Beyond the Reef
(Highseas, 1992; McBooks, 2000)

The novel begins with the court martial of one of Vice-Admiral Richard Bolitho's oldest friends, a naval man of some renown who has grown bitter through a series of personal disappointments -- most especially the recent death of his wife. The novel ends with a fierce, nearly one-sided sea battle in the West Indies.

The meat of Beyond the Reef, however, is Bolitho's ill-fated mission to Cape Town, which fails due to mutiny and a wreck off the coast of Africa that leaves Bolitho, his mistress and a handful of sailors adrift in a longboat, far from land and with more enemies than friends between them and salvation. It makes for some tense, gritty storytelling, although it's resolved a bit too quickly for my taste; there was ample room for more drama before their inevitable rescue.

Instead, author Alexander Kent digs deeply into the relationships of his various characters, including the protagonist's nephew, Adam Bolitho, a rising frigate captain harboring a secret love; Lady Catherine Somervell, Bolitho's mistress; Vice-Admiral Thomas Herrick, who faces disgrace and possible death over his most recent actions at sea, and who remains unwilling to be reconciled with Bolitho; Valentine Keen, Bolitho's flagship captain and one of his closest friends; and of course John Allday, Bolitho's longtime coxswain, whose friendship with the vice-admiral crosses the usual lines dividing officers from common seamen.

Despite Kent's deft handling of his characters, he spends too much ink on Bolitho's romance and his growing sense of gloom over the life he's chosen. For a man who wins so often, despite heavy odds against him, and whose men so obviously love him, Bolitho has a grim outlook on life that too often brings the tone of the book down. I wish his nephew, Adam, was featured more often, since he seems to have inherited his uncle's former enjoyment of their shared life at sea. At the same time, I wish Kent would tone down his focus on Bolitho's love life, which borders on prurient.

I am still enjoying Bolitho's long-running saga, which still has several more books to go. However, I hope Kent gets back to writing more action-oriented stuff, which is sorely lacking in Beyond the Reef.

book review by
Tom Knapp

21 January 2017

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