“The Devil to Pay”

David Donachie

This is book eleven of Donachie’s John Pearce series. Since I’m reading a bunch of them in sequence…

OK, enough, it’s time to say something about this series.

I read a lot of naval historical fiction, especially novels set in the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Era. I admit, I like them all. This series, however, really stands out.

For starters, Doncahie’s protagonist, John Pearce, starts out as a pressed man. Though he shares this with Julian Stockwin’s Tom Kydd, more of this series is devoted to the life of the common sailor and even when Pearce is — somewhat undeservedly — promoted, his seaman friends remain part of the story. Moreover Pearce is illegally pressed, and his quest for justice — and to get out of the navy — provides the narrative drive of the series. Pearce’s eduction in the navy is an interesting part of the story.

Another thing that distinguishes this series from others in the genre is that not all the men of the Royal Navy are heroes. One of two bad apples isn’t too unusual in this sort of book, but the Pearce books have barrels of them: there are cowards and money-grubbing officers, not to mention admirals more interested in politics than in their duties. But Donachie’s villains have their reasons and their backstories, which makes them both more interesting than cardboard baddies and more believable.

The morals of the era are respected. Which isn’t to say people don’t stray, but there’s always the risk of social consequences. Also, the poverty and hardships of the era are graphically portrayed.

One thing about that could use improvement: Donachie, though he knows and describes ship-handling very clearly, isn’t as good as some authors in describing naval battles. It takes a little effort to follow the events once the guns are run out.

(I don’t think I’ve ever commented on book covers in this blog, but I have to say: the ones for this series are really awful.)

“Persephone”

Julian Stockwin

It has ships on the cover so it should be about deeds of daring do on the high seas, right? Well, this one is more about romance than broadsides and the eponym of the book is a woman, not a ship.

This entry in the Kydd series is more Austen than Hornblower and most of the story takes place on dry land as Kydd tries to win back the affections of “The Admiral’s Daughter“. As much as I enjoy the action and adventure elements of this genre, it’s this sort of story that humanizes and rounds out characters, and it’s one of the things that distinguishes the Kydd series.

(Note: Though this is being posted after the post for “The Baltic Prize” this book precedes it in the series.)

“Betrayal”

Julian Stockwin

After “Conquest”, betrayal. Kydd participates in a not-quite-official military expedition to Buenos Aires, which is sure to cause complications in the next book. And as for Kydd’s sidekick Renzi, watching him agonize over courting Kydd’s sister is worse than waiting for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to get together.

As is usual with the Kydd books, this was too short and I can’t for the next one.

“Victory”

Julian Stockwin

I love the Kydd series, but this one focuses too much on the setpiece Battle of Trafalger scenes and too little on Kydd and his friend Renzi.  Stockwin spent half  of this book not on his main characters but with a midshipman aboard Nelson’s “Victory”: I enjoyed the other half.  Still, given the excellence of its predecessors I  eagerly await the next Kydd book.

“Invasion”

Julian Stockwin

I was really looking forward to this book, since nearly all the books in the Thomas Kydd series have, like the previous one, been consistently excellent.  Sadly, this one is a disappointment.  Kydd and his friend Nicholas Renzi get involved with Robert Fulton’s work on the submarine, both undercover in France and in England.  The largely factual history of Fulton’s experiments are interesting, but I wanted to see Kydd and Renzi develop further.  This one just doesn’t move the series along.