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Book Review: Insert Title Here

By (July 27, 2013) No Comment

Take, Burn or Destroytake burn or destroy

by S. Thomas Russell

Putnam, 2013


The third adventure of S. Thomas Russell’s 18th century naval hero Charles Hayden inexplicably does something very similar to the old ‘running up the false colors’ trick that always stood Hayden’s fictional forebears Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower in such good stead. The novel appeared last year in the UK, regaling readers of Russell’s rock-solid two previous books, Under Enemy Colors and A Battle Won, with a nicely counterbalanced narrative of Hayden’s adventures in command of the HMS Themis at the height of the French Revolution. That same novel made its US appearance in the spring, and many a fan of the series thought it a double blessing – because the UK hardcover was called Ship of War and the US hardcover was called Take, Burn or Destroy. The general reader, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the global book-market forged by Amazon (and perhaps noting that we no longer live in the 1860s), eager for all the Hayden adventures they can get, would have been strongly tempted to buy first and ask question later. Considering how piratical some publishers feel they need to be in order to survive, it might even be possible that those readers were encouraged to buy first and ask questions later.

Those readers who weren’t tricked by this little fraud (or the completists) will find a seafaring novel well worth their time. The Dawn Watch is yet more strong storytelling from Russell, who cites the late great Patrick O’Brian as one of his favorite models but who frequently indulges in pretty little ruminations of the type O’Brian almost entirely eschewed:

They floated on a sea of mercury, drowned in a milky haze. The air, cool and deathly still, was aglow with glistening droplets. Every surface of the ship was overlain and dripping with water condensed out of the haze. The creaking cordage, men moving about, muttered conversation from below, and then the plaintive cry of a gull somewhere out in the fog – but where Hayden could not say. The sound could have come from aft, or from out to sea, or from any point of the compass at all.

ship of war - russellIn this latest adventure, Hayden and his men are ordered to intercept and sink a French frigate sailing out of Le Havre, but this comparatively simple mission unfolds into something far more complex (involving the safety of England itself), and Russell has plenty of opportunities to stretch his legs with the kind of ship-writing and, in a couple of very well-executed scenes, naval fighting he so clearly loves to describe. The narrative manages to balance such scenes with surprisingly long and nuanced domestic scenes on land, a combination that makes A Sea So Dark not quite like any other recent Age of Sail novel. In less skillful hands, the two plot-strands might fatally distract each other, but Russell keeps a firm hand on things throughout. True, he can lapse into a wooden obviousness that outstrips even Forester at his worst, as when we’re told, “Seldom in his life had Hayden felt like a hypocrite – he was ever scrupulous in his dealings so that he might avoid guilt, which he found a very unpleasant emotion.

But such moments are few and scattered; for the most part, readers get glimpse after glimpse of Charles Hayden himself, a ready warrior who’s nevertheless a contemplative – and almost sweet – man refreshingly alive to just the natural invigorations readers come to these kinds of books wanting to imbibe:

Hayden had been admiring the sea – an activity of which he never tired. It had turned all silver-grey beneath the cloud, jagged with ripples. Here and there the sun broke through, illuminating a few acres of water, causing it to glitter and dance so that Hayden could hardly look at it.

Over A Surging Main provides both these pretty little moments and the bigger action and character set-pieces readers of the sub-genre hope for but don’t always get from O’Brian and Forester’s successors. Those readers should find it in their local bookshop, check its copyright information, double and triple-check its copyright information, and then treat themselves to its many charms.