Thursday, 16 June 2016

Review: The Blast that Tears the Skies by J.D. Davies

The Blast that Tears the Skies is the third novel in J.D. Davies' The Journals of Matthew Quinton series. It is a historical naval fiction series set in the 17th century that has, until now, spent most of its time on land, dealing with the protagonist's family mysteries. The third part finally brings the family mystery to its conclusion and also describes one of the major naval battles of the era, the Battle of Lowestoft, where the Royal Navy have to forget their differences in order to beat the Dutch Navy.

The novel begins with Matthew and his crew on a ship that faces off a Dutch vessel. Soon after, Matthew loses the command of the ship to his friend and worries whether that is because he has recently offended the King. At this point, Matthew has time to worry about his family secrets again and especially his brother's new wife whose actions seem more and more mystifying. His detective work is interrupted when he's suddenly given a new command and tasked with joining the Royal Navy in their upcoming battle with the Dutch. Things are made more difficult by his secret orders: to prepare to fight his countrymen in case the rumours of twenty captains' treachery proves true.

The novel follows Matthew and his wife and other characters. Matthew is focussed on his naval mission and his worries of the captains' loyalty, while his wife works to discover the secrets of her brother-in-law's wife while yet another team tries to find the truth behind the rumours of some captains' planned defection. The wife's plotline unfortunately resorts to the storytelling style where the characters know more than the reader and refuse to reveal their motivations until the conclusion of the novel - so we mainly follow her doing stuff with little to no knowledge of what she's trying to do or why.

The naval battle is refreshing in a naval fiction series that has been sorely lacking in naval activities thus far. In the historical notes the author tells that there are many conflicting descriptions of the battle around and shows, based on his own long expertise in the field, how some commonly held beliefs and notions about it are not entirely correct. The reader is therefore treated with an action-filled piece that is probably very close to what actually happened - aside from a couple of captains having been replaced by Matthew and his Dutch brother-in-law to make one of the ship-to-ship battles more personal.

The novel finishes with a very Agatha Christie like scene where all the central characters are in one room where the family secret plotline finally comes to a conclusion (or does it?). I was never very interested in the plotline and actually managed to solve some of the puzzles myself early on in the series (concerning Matthew's mother), but the final confrontation turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. The finale gives the impression that the story was always meant to be a trilogy, but leaves the door open to more family mysteries to come (as I assume they will, since this is not the last part of the series).

The storytelling is still somewhat slow-going at times, especially on land, and the characters keep worrying about the same things pages on end. The author occasionally refers to elderly Matthew as the writer of the story and this naturally takes away all tension of that particular character's future in the series, as we know that he's going to survive. What bothered me more was the way additional POVs were introduced. The elderly Matthew apparently writes his story both from his own memory as well as from the notes and diaries of the other characters. While this is a logical solution to introduce other POV's, the transitions are often somewhat clumsy and throw out any sense of immersion - as do the occasional historical exposition bits in the midst of an action scene (a few people lose their heads to cannon balls in a bloody scene that suddenly gives way to an explanation of one character's future career).

All in all, this was the best part of the series thus far. The storytelling is sometimes a little bit sluggish, but the overall feeling was still positive and I look forward to picking up the next part at some point (it is already on my to-read pile, so it might not be too long).