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Book Review: Kings and Emperors

By (February 18, 2015) No Comment

Kings and Emperorskings and emperors cover

by Dewey Lambdin

Minotaur Books, 2015

It didn’t happen suddenly, but it feels sudden just the same, this emptying-out of the seas. Until just recently, fiction set in the so-called Napoleonic Era was as thickly-masted with sea-dogs as the actual era itself had been. You couldn’t pass the New Release table of your local bookstore without coming within hailing distance of the latest blood ‘n swash adventure novels from authors like Alexander Kent, C. S. Forester, and Patrick O’Brian, and the pickings seemed endless.

But one by one, the guns fell silent. Many aficionados of the sub-genre of fighting-sail fiction will feel the golden hour passed with Blue at the Mizzen, the 1999 final installment in Patrick O’Brian’s great Aubrey/Maturin series of novels (the less said about the subsequent manuscript fragment W. W. Norton & Co. literally pried out of the author’s dead hands the better), or perhaps with Peter Weir’s enormously enjoyable 2003 movie adaptation of the O’Brian mythos, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Looking at those New Release tables in 2015, it’s possible, with a little effort, to spot the random fighting-sail novel here and there, but there are no massive architectural series still forging ahead.

None, except for one: Dewey Lambdin’s ribald and utterly addicting series of novels starring British sea-stalwart Alan Lewrie is still going strong. The series began with The King’s Coat back in 1989, and this month Minotaur Books brings out book #21 in the series, Kings and Emperors. It’s possible there are some dedicated fans of sea-faring fiction who are still unaware of these trim and nifty novels, but by this point they have nobody to blame but themselves. Certainly Lambdin has taken precious few vacations.

Each novel opens with the standard diagram of an eighteenth-century fighting vessel anatomized to help land-lubbers distinguish between a spanker and a foc’s’le, and there’s also a handy diagram of the points-of-sail by which the crew of any wind-driven vessel lived or died. But the real genius of orientation in these books comes not from such visual aids but from Lambdin’s effortless-seeming mastery of his storyteller’s craft. He’s so skilled at creating a narrative that just sweeps his readers along that he can dispense completely with the usual tedious “Previously, in the Alan Lewrie Novels” preface and just dive right into the story, confident in his ability to deploy well-placed digressions along the way to bring his readers up to speed on his main character’s extraordinary life. We’ve hardly begun Kings and Emperors, for instance, before we get this nimble bit:

It must here be pointed out that Captain Alan Lewrie, before he had become Sir Alan Lewrie, Bart., had been press-ganged into the Navy by his own father when he was seventeen, in the middle of the American Revolution (to collect an inheritance on Lewrie’s mother’s side that would save the old rogue from debtors’ prison whilst Alan was away and all unknowing), and that Midshipman Alan Lewrie had never been a gladsome sailor! Or quite that young, either, to be perfectly honest!

A great deal of the talking-points of the previous twenty novels has been distilled in such a quick paragraph, and yet it hampers the momentum of this novel’s plot not at all. Many an author of other ongoing fiction series (and here let’s all try not to glare at the science fiction-fantasy crowd) could learn a thing or two from such crucial but unobtrusive passages.

The actual plot of Kings and Emperors is fairly standard for this type of book – a ship becalmed, a captain impatient for cruises and the loot they promise, a Europe constantly endangered by the threat of peace breaking out and ruining everything. A good third of O’Brian’s novels opened with Lucky Jack Aubrey chaffing under similar conditions. It’s 1807, and Captain Lewrie is mouldering away at anchor at Gibraltar, stymied by peace until Bonaparte invades Portugal and begins a march into Spain. Suddenly, Lewrie and his prized ship Sapphire are propelled into the thick of things again, although Lambdin very effectively toys with the typical hurry-up-and-wait nature of navy life, confronting poor Lewrie with a few dull patches before the novel’s main action opens:

And so went the rest of April and early May of 1808; calling at Parsley Island, now garrisoned and equipped with batteries of 24-pounder cannon; circling round the fortress of Ceuta and its peninsula at a safe five miles’ distance, and fetching-to at night within sight of the frustrated, and hopefully starving Spanish garrison, lit up with extra lanthorns on deck like a garden party. A week of that, and Sapphire would return to port for firewood, water, fresh rations, and shore liberty for both watches. Except for Lewrie’s visits with Maddelena when in harbour, it was the dullest sort of duty, almost as bad as what he imagined peacetime service was like. He even found himself with the urge to re-black the guns and obtain brick-dust to polish brass like the finicky-est martinet of a Captain!

From passages like this it’s possible for newcomers to spot at once the key similarities and differences Lewrie enjoys in comparison to the stars of other seafaring fiction series, particularly that offhand mention of the fact that Lewrie is first and foremost a fighting captain, somebody who can only imagine what peacetime service is like. He’s like Jack Aubrey in that (and in mistresses with names like Maddelena), and he fights against being anything like that ultimate “finicky-est martinet of a Captain,” Horatio Hornblower – although Lewrie isn’t quite Flashman-at-sea: when trouble comes, he can reliably be found up in front, sword in hand.

Lambdin excels in perfectly-executed action sequences, several of which punctuate Kings and Emperors, and long-time readers of the series will be pleased with the ways the book moves forward and deepens the personal Lewrie plot-lines that take place on dry land. But this series is most definitely not solely intended for those long-time readers; any novel in the sequence is as good a place as any other to jump on – and Kings and Emperors, with its greater-than-usual concentration of complex geopolitics to season its action and humor, is better than most.