“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.)

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