This section contains reviews of books by David Hayes and members of the forum

Julian Mackrell Review: The Devil's Fire by Matt Tomerlin

The Devil's FireI am emphatically not an expert on pirate fiction, but I have read a few and like some of them. Susan Keogh's The Prodigal: A Novel is excellent as is Mark Keating's Fight for Freedom (Patrick Devlin), both of which I would recommend unreservedly to any lover of nautical fiction. I wish I could say the same for Tomerlin's The Devil's Fire ...

I can remember not a single description of ship or sail handling - movement just sort of happens without any apparent involvement from the crew. Nautical terms are sparse: 'main mast', 'capstan' and one or two others are overshadowed by 'floor', 'ceiling', 'wall', 'upstairs' etc. Characterization is poor: it takes far too long to develop any sort of individuality, and at no time could I find anyone remotely likeable, or who I felt any sympathy for, even the principal victim! I also found the plot to be weak: endless fighting and squabbling amongst themselves, but very little else. Had this book been condensed to a few chapters opening book 2 [The Devil's Tide, which I assume continues the story from where this leaves off], then it may have been more successful.

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Review: Hell Around the Horn by Rick Spilman

Hell Around the HornIn the Age of Sail the strength of wind and the height of waves in the southern ocean faced by ships rounding the Horn in winter were infamous, so from a book titled Hell Around the Horn you expect some pretty graphic descriptions of life at sea.  Rick Spilman does not disappoint.

After an introduction from one of the crew in later life, the story starts as the windjammer Lady Rebecca takes on a cargo of coal and signs on crew at Tiger Bay, Cardiff, ready for a voyage to Chile. We then follow the vessel from the point of view of various officers, apprentices and crew, as well as the captain's wife, as it faces seemingly never ending storms and the hardships lead to death and conflict aboard.

With Spilman's graphic writing you get a real feel for the conditions they faced and the hardships of handling these large ships with minimal crew. Though this is a work of fiction it is based around a well documented voyage in the early 1900's, a period rarely covered, and the descriptions of life aboard are as informative as a non-fiction work without overpowering the reader with minute detail.

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Richard Spilman Review: The Patriot’s Fate by Alaric Bond

The Patriot’s FateOriginally published on the The Old Salt Blog

Alaric Bond's The Patriot's Fate, the fifth in his Fighting Sail series, is an exciting nautical adventure that is also a rich and fascinating voyage through the history, politics and complex divided loyalties of Britain at the end of the eighteenth century.

Many novels in the genre follow the model used by C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian and so many others, where the focus is the career of a single Royal Navy officer. The Patriot's Fate, like the other books in Bond's Fighting Sail series, is told through multiple perspectives, ranging from the ship's captain, to the junior officers and warrants, to Jack Tars and the ship's boys. The approach gives a much broader sense of what is going on aboard ship. It works particularly well in The Patriot's Fate because it allows parallel and overlapping story lines that keep the novel moving along briskly.

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Julian Mackrell Review: The Patriot's Fate by Alaric Bond

The Patriot's FateWell, he's done it again! The eagerly anticipated fifth instalment of Alaric Bond's 'Fighting Sail' series is with us at last and it is another corker! Set at the conclusion of the Irish uprising of 1798, with Britain's army brutally putting down the rebellion on land, The Patriot's Fate follows Wolf Tone's attempt to bring a French invasion force to bear while Royal Navy elements desperately seek to prevent them from landing. It is a story of cat-and-mouse on the high seas culminating in a dramatic climax.

As before in this series, the story is told from the viewpoint of several characters rather than just a single hero: most of these are already familiar from earlier books, but we also follow the exploits of a contingent of Irish 'rebels' in equal measure. Bond's skill is to shift perspective between this relatively large cast without in the least disrupting the flow or disorientating the reader, effortlessly weaving these multiple elements into a slow-boiling narrative that informs and entertains in equal measure as tension builds.

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Alaric Bond Review: Hell Around the Horn by Rick Spilman

Hell Around the HornRichard Spilman's Hell Around the Horn is set at the turn of the twentieth century in one of the last windjammers to make the perilous passage about Cape Horn. It follows the progress of the Lady Rebecca as she takes on cargo and crew at Tiger Bay, before setting out for her eventual destination in far away Chile. The subsequent story is one of peril and hardship, brought about by the atrocious weather conditions and a fair degree of human mischief, and is told through the eyes of all on board, be they fresh or seasoned hands, young "brassbounders," senior officers, or even the captain's family. It is a gritty tale: no blue wave lapped sandy beaches here, just an excellent recreation of what is takes to round the Horn under sail, along with a better understanding of those who chose to do so. This is true historical fiction: a genuine "feel" for the time is portrayed, with interesting nuggets of information about the social conditions and descriptions of the contemporary sailing methods and gear.

In fact that is where the magic lies; Spilman's love and knowledge of the subject is obvious, with facts and technical detail blending well into the story. In much historical fiction the "tell all you know" trap is common and snares many writers, allowing good storylines to be buried beneath a mass of intricate and unnecessary detail. In Hell Around the Horn this is not the case: at no time is the reader bombarded with ostentatious data or obscure jargon. Instead they are sensibly informed, and gently led through a complex world by a competent and knowledgeable hand. Being entertained, rather than involuntarily educated is a far more pleasant experience, and the whole process is rather akin to sailing with a trusted sea daddy.

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Review: Britain's Greatest Naval Battle by Richard Freeman

Britain's Greatest Naval BattleI have now read a couple of Mr Freeman's works which have used the style of comparing different aspects of something and deciding which was the most important to history or 'Greatest'. In this book, Britain's Greatest Naval Battle, the author compares two battles from different periods of the Age of Sail, The Armada and Trafalgar, with the more modern Battle of Jutland, to decide which was the most important to Britain.

Freeman first sets out a number of criteria which he will use to reach his decision and then analyses each Battle in turn against these, finally reaching a decision as to which is the greatest. I will not spoil the book by revealing this conclusion.

Whether you agree with the outcome  or not, the book will certainly make you think about these battles from a different perspective. For scholarly works they are shorter than usual, but they are priced appropriately for this and it made them an easier read than some. I enjoyed comparing such disparate actions and if you just want to spend a few hours on non-fiction rather than undertake some detailed in depth research this is certainly one to consider.

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