James L. Nelson,
Brethren of the Coast #2: The Blackbirder
(William Morrow, 2001; Perennial, 2002)

Thomas Marlowe's prospects are looking up. Married to the beautiful Elizabeth, he also runs a prosperous tobacco plantation in colonial Virginia, his new ship has been fitted and readied for sailing, and he has been promised a letter of marque with which to seek his fortunes against the French and Spanish on the high seas.

But this wouldn't be much of a novel if everything ran smoothly. Marlowe's fortunes take a nasty turn when King James -- first mate on Marlowe's galley and first among the slaves Marlowe freed upon buying the plantation -- stumbles upon a ship of blackbirders (slave traders) in distress. Appalled by the mistreatment of the human cargo and stirred to anger by the slavers themselves, James kills the cruel captain, overthrows the crew and frees the slaves. Then, realizing his life and the lives of his men, also former slaves, are forfeit, they sail the liberated ship into the Atlantic and make a run for Africa.

But blame falls on Marlowe, who earned the enmity of some powerful men by freeing his slaves in the first place. Marlowe, under strict orders of the governor, has no choice but to pursue James and his crew and bring them to justice.

Meanwhile, King James finds dissent among the freed slaves, some of whom want to turn pirate and avenge themselves on white sailors. His inability to communicate with them -- none are from his own tribe, and only one man among them speaks English -- makes his own authority even more tenuous. And, back in Virginia, Elizabeth is beset by parties who want all of her husband's freed slaves rounded up and arrested as an example to others.

Like the previous book in the series, The Guardship, The Blackbirder makes full use of author James L. Nelson's knowledge of the sea. Set in 1702, the story sails along at a brisk pace, filled with action and excitement but never overlooking the rich, layered development that makes these characters colorfully human.

Marlowe, himself a former pirate, is the fullest of the characters here, and the untenable position he finds himself in makes for fascinating reading. So, too, does his friendship with the scholarly Francis Bickerstaff, whose relationship with Marlowe will surely remind Patrick O'Brian fans of Capt. Aubrey and Dr. Maturin. Elizabeth's own adventures are a little more comical, almost slapstick at times, and her actions at times strain credulity, but they provide a light counterpoint to the far more serious tone of James's various trials at sea.

Nelson is a man to watch. I have already begun reading the third book in the series, The Pirate Round, although I am a little disappointed to know the book ends the saga of Thomas Marlowe. Who knows -- trilogies have been expanded to four or five books before, why not now?

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

26 April 2008

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