Originally published on the The Old Salt Blog
What is so intriguing about Broos Campbell’s No Quarter, the first book of his Matty Graves series, is that while it follows the general conventions of Georgian naval fiction, it is remarkably original in setting, character and outlook. Campbell has chosen a fascinating and often overlooked period of history - the “Quasi-war” between the young American republic and the French - a time of shifting alliances where it is not always easy to tell friend from foe both internationally and within the fledgling Navy.
Matty Graves is a seventeen year old master’s mate aboard the U.S. Navy’s armed schooner Rattle-Snake. The novel opens on the day after Christmas, 1799. George Washington’s funeral procession is passing through the streets of Baltimore, from which the Rattle-Snake is preparing to sail. It is a moment of tremendous change and uncertainty for the young nation, and its navy, as well as for the young master’s mate.
Washington’s dislike of factions and parties has devolved into battles between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. The Rattle-Snake is sailing to protect a convoy of American merchant ships in the Caribbean which may come under attack from the French, except that no declaration of war exists between the United States and France. Are the French attackers privateers or pirates? The Royal Navy is no longer the enemy, yet the English, claiming the right to press “deserters” from American ships, are clearly not friends either, and the prospect of the next war looms on the horizon.
When their small squadron is surrounded by French picaroons, will the French obey the rules of war and act like the privateers that they claim to be? When Matty and his men are captured can they claim the rights of prisoners of war, if no war has been declared?
The threats are not only from the French or the English. The Rattle-Snake is under the command of Captain William Trimble, who to Matty is “Cousin Billy”. Cousin Billy’s drinking is out of control and his ability to command is in question, forcing Matty to choose between allegiance to his family or to his ship. Should he side with the charming yet arrogant First Officer Peter Wickett or stand with his cousin? One need not even look ahead to the title of Campbell’s third book in the series, Peter Wicked, to suspect the danger behind the First Officer’s sarcastic smile. It will also soon become clear to young Matty that the factions within the fledging US Navy can be almost as treacherous as their foes at sea.
The writing is vivid and well paced. Campbell has a good eye for idiosyncratic detail. From the inscription over a tavern door to the picaroon gunner twirling slow-match cord over his head to keep it burning in an open boat, his use of detail and jargon felt just right for advancing the story.
The only area which concerned me about the book was Matty’s voice. The narrative is in the first person. At times I was concerned that Matty sounded too cynical for a seventeen year old. Then again, considering the events and people around him, a high degree of cynicism would be entirely reasonable. It occurred to me that mulling over aspects of the central character’s personality long after I had finished the book says very good things how about well the character has been crafted. Too many characters in fiction are easily forgotten. The same cannot be said of Matty Graves, which is a very good thing indeed.
Description of: No Quarter
Author: Broos Campbell