Peter Smalley does not rest on his laurels in this latest, the fifth, in the Hayter/Rennie series. He has created a readable, interesting tale: characters we care about, a compelling story, lots of action and a window on history. James Hayter, haunted by doubts about his leadership ability and beset by tragedy at home, resigns his commission in the Royal Navy, a step he soon comes to regret. He is recruited by the shadowy agency that has already touched his life and he finds a new calling, one that gives him an opportunity to collaborate with mentor and friend, Captain William Rennie. As France reels from the Terror, Hayter and Rennie find themselves embroiled in a scheme to foil the worst excesses of the revolution. Their masters resolutely keep them in the dark and they chafe at being pawns in a game whose rules they don't understand. Nothing is straightforward in their mission and, faced with betrayal, they wind up in a desperate fight for their lives.
Smalley does a fine job of weaving his fictional narrative into the fabric of history (although he does advance the first use of the guillotine by almost a year.) To say more risks spoiling the story for new readers. Even if much of the plot is driven by events ashore, Smalley makes sure that there is plenty of shipboard action: sailing evolutions, repairs, storms, gunnery, boat actions, single- and multiple-ship actions as well as the small daily dramas that swirl around a captain at sea. These passages are the heart of historic naval fiction, and Smalley excels at them. It is aboard the Expedient that the reader finds many of the wonderful minor characters introduced in earlier books.
Hayter and Rennie make a memorable pair. While each may become impatient with the other's shortcomings, their friendship is built on genuine regard and they are fiercely loyal one to the other. Hayter is impetuous, given to following his heart without thought for the consequences. Rennie is a no-nonsense sea officer, plain-spoken in his desire for everything to be well-ordered and above board. He can be downcast on land, but he comes gloriously into his own when commanding men on the deck of a ship. There are several occasions when one man might well not have survived but for the unique gifts of his friend.
The well-developed plot and characters are complemented by Smalley's writing. The action passages are compelling and the interior monologues powerful without being unduly long. The impersonal narrative voice sometimes coalesces into an ironic comment, but is never intrusive. Smalley's dialog is masterfully done. He avoids one-size-fits-all Eighteenth Centurian (as my wife says) speech; instead, each character's speech is uniquely his or her own. Smalley is very aware, for instance, that a well-placed "Ah" can be more revealing than a paragraph of maundering. His trick of telegraphing unspoken thoughts next to speech is very effective.
The Gathering Storm is a worthy addition to a worthy series. Thank you Mister Smalley -- I look forward to the next book.
Description of: The Gathering Storm
Author: Peter Smalley