James L. Nelson,
The Confederate Navy #2: Thieves of Mercy
(William Morrow, 2005)

Samuel Bowater's bold but fruitless defense of the naval front of the Confederate South continues in Thieves of Mercy, the second and final book in The Confederate Navy series by James Nelson.

Deprived of his ship in the previous book, Glory in the Name, Bowater and his crew await the completion of their new ironclad vessel in Memphis, along the war-torn Mississippi River. But Union troops and ships are advancing, and it's not certain Bowater will be able to weigh anchor in time to evade capture. In the meantime, he and his men set sail on a sidewheel ram along with the rowdy, bellicose Mississippi Mike Sullivan, a powder keg of a man who's not beholden to the gray heads of military discipline. With Mississippi Mike at the helm, you can be sure of a fight -- but it's not always the Union foes at the receiving end of Mike's swings.

Hieronymous Taylor, Bowater's engineer, battles his own demons in the engine room in the wake of terrible devastation and loss. Meanwhile, Bowater's sweetheart Wendy has her own set of trials back home in Virginia as she and her aunt strive to avoid Union troops and make their way to comparative safety out West.

Although Nelson continues to spin a good yarn in the finest naval tradition, I found Mercy to be a weak successor to Glory. In part, it's because Bowater spends far too much of this novel without a ship to command, and the saga of a navy captain requires a ship. Too, the character of Mississippi Mike is a little too broadly drawn; a caricature of a caricature, he heaves his way into the forefront of every scene at the expense of the more interesting characters around him. (His satirical Shakespearean adventure -- a literary effort that takes place belowdecks between actions -- is a funny set piece that drags on too long.) And the adventures of Wendy and Aunt Molly are just a little too Laurel & Hardy, particularly once you bring Abraham Lincoln into the scene and add a jealous Union officer who just will not die.

I can honestly say I enjoyed reading Thieves of Mercy, which is another strong tale of the Confederate navy. But of all of Nelson's novels that I've read to date, I enjoyed this the least. Still, you can be sure I'll be eagerly watching for his name across the cover of another nautical saga soon.

review by
Tom Knapp

29 August 2009

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