Sunday, 16 June 2013

J.D. Davies' Gentleman Captain

There are many authors writing about the Age of Sail, but most of them concentrate their attention to the 18th century. The master of the Age of Sail genre is naturally Patrick O'Brian who brings alive the friendship between Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in a way that has been never-before-seen in Literature. The only failing of the novels from my perspective is that they are set in the wrong century.

And that is the main reason my curiosity was immediately piqued when I learned that J.D. Davies' Gentleman Captain is set in this very period: the latter half of the 17th century, after the devastating Civil War in England that had torn that land apart.

The hero of the story is Matthew Quinton, a young man who dreams of joining the King's Horse Guard and considers his first stint as the captain of a ship with certain disdain. Until his utter lack of competence costs not only the ship, but most of the hands aboard. When he eventually manages to gain another chance, he sets his mind into learning the seacraft and becoming a real sea captain.

The premise of the story is great and seems to promise some fine sea action. Thus, the fact that very little of the story actually happens at sea is a slight disappointment. The plot mostly deals with the political situation in Scotland and a murder mystery that is somehow connected to it.

Insofar as the description of the era is concerned, Davies does a fine job. We get a good sense of the weakness of the English King and the way he attempts to bring the opposing parties of the Civil War back together. We also learn of how the King attempts to make the navy loyal to him by giving captaincies to noble royalist families. Compared to the captains who were on the opposing side of the Civil War, these gentleman captains are mostly inept and often consider seamanship to be somewhat beneath them. The tradition of sending young sons of noble families to serve on ships and learn the craft from an early age is only beginning.

A minor gripe is the way Davies uses the word epee as a reference to a sword that a certain Frenchman carries in the story. This word is a modern invention (in English) and refers to the smallsword, or duelling sword, that actually followed the rapier. Rapiers were still very much a thing in the 17th century, while the lighter duelling-only swords appeared in the following century.

Nevertheless, the Gentleman Captain was a fine read and I will certainly check out how the series continues and especially if we'll see more naval life in the future.