book review, Britain, characterization, eighteenth century, French Revolution, historical fiction, moral issues, Royal Navy, rules of engagement, S. Thomas Russell
Review: Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead, by S. Thomas Russell
Putnam, 2014. 435 pp. $28
Captain Charles Hayden commands H.M.S. Themis, a frigate patrolling Caribbean waters in 1794, during the French Revolutionary Wars. He serves immediately under Sir William Jones, a captain senior to him, known for bravery and impeccable seamanship but a greed for glory that plunges him into foolish risks, for which others pay with their lives. Hayden must follow Sir William’s lead or be disciplined, and it should be noted that Sir William boasts of friends in high places. But the junior captain is a very different sort of commander, and therein hangs a tale.
First of all, when Hayden takes a risk, as he does all the time, he carefully weighs the cost against the likely gain, as any prudent captain would. But Hayden goes further, considering what he’d do in his opponent’s place, taking motives, resources, and sensibilities into account. Even more remarkably, he grants his adversary abilities and conviction equal to his own, typical of his outlook. For similar reasons, he consults his junior officers, to teach them tactics and leadership as well as benefit from what they have to say. Hayden’s therefore a rare commander in any military organization, especially the Royal Navy, which never met a new idea it liked.
But open-mindedness runs up against probabilities and experience, and the Themis quickly tests its captain’s character. Against all odds, the ship picks up two survivors from the open ocean, a pair of Spanish aristocrats, hence nationals of a British ally. However, their story seems so far-fetched that Hayden has to wonder whether these men are whom they claim to be, perhaps spies or criminals. One officer suspects that the younger survivor is effeminate, a dangerous secret, given that the Articles of War punish homosexuality with hanging, though presumably a foreign civilian wouldn’t be subject to the rule. What’s more, this young man gives Hayden advice to heal his injured heart; the captain recently lost the love of his life to another.
So Hayden can hardly be a neutral observer when the gunroom mess discusses the ways men and women differ in their thinking, the first of several moral or ethical questions to enter the narrative. Others include slavery; what’s permissible in war (especially for personal advantage); at what point does an enemy in extremis become a victim to be rescued; and what a commander owes his men, over whom he has the power of life and death.
Grappling with these questions is one pleasure that separates Until the Sea from lesser novels of the genre. True to form, there’s plenty of action, but you never feel it’s just there to keep the narrative rolling. Russell derives tension from several sources, whether Hayden’s misgivings about his orders, the identity of the Spanish gentlemen, or the presence of a crippled slave ship. I also enjoy the dialog, especially the witticisms of a Mr. Hawthorne, lieutenant of marines.
On the downside, I wish Russell plied a more vivid pen. He knows seamanship, and he takes you inside the chess game of naval maneuvers, a pleasure. But he doesn’t reveal the ship itself, whether the cramped quarters, the complex parts, or the visual space in which the characters move and speak. Similarly, it’s a rare passage where the author troubles to portray the sky, the sea, or a port of call:
The city itself was a-hum, trademen’s carts and barrows passing by, planters in their carriages and gigs, dusky-skinned slaves and freemen going about their business, and then the Creoles with their nutmeg skin and striking features–to Hayden’s eye, more handsome than either of the races that spawned them.
I don’t want to sound harsh, because I like this book, and Russell’s a good storyteller. But his prose is serviceable at best, and so are the characterizations. Hayden’s a sympathetic chap, but too much so, as if his liberality and troubled conscience shine like stars in the Caribbean firmament. And too often, Russell tells the reader what Hayden’s like, rather than show him. This is where I have trouble with the ecstatic blurbs on the jacket, which liken Russell to Patrick O’Brian.
I know; I know. The poor man didn’t ask for that, and I can’t blame him for not being somebody else. Nevertheless, I can ask why Russell chose to make Hayden a paragon, when O’Brian isn’t afraid to have his hero, Jack Aubrey, behave at times like a lout or a bigot or a lush. I understand the author’s instinct to protect a protagonist–you want to like him, and you want your readers to do the same. But it’s a better novel when you don’t get in the way.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.