With The Jackass Frigate (2008), Alaric Bond has stepped into the first rank of writers of historic naval fiction. The story follows the fortunes of the officers and crew of the frigate HMS Pandora, newly built and commissioned, but smaller and more lightly armed than most. After an exciting bit of detached service, the Pandora joins the Mediterranean Fleet under Jervis in time for the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Bond shows a deceptively easy mastery of the mainstays of Historic Naval Fiction narrative – ship handling, seamanship, shipboard life (both before the mast and in ‘officer country”), gunnery, surgery, and above all, flawless descriptions of both fictional and historic battles.
It is, however, the loving and thorough treatment of the principal characters aboard the Pandora that make The Jackass Frigate transcend mere adventure fiction. Many of the Pandora’s people resemble the “stock” characters that, in the hands of lesser writers, stand as cardboard figures that serve only to carry the narrative forward: the sadistic first lieutenant, the rich young captain buoyed by “interest,” the newly-made junior lieutenant, the japing-but-good-hearted midshipman, the drunken surgeon, the up-through-the-hawsehole master’s mate and the heart-of-oak yeoman sailors. Under Bond’s pen, however, each of these men – among others – takes on a real life. The reader comes to see each as a unique individual, to understand his feelings and motivations, and finally to care very much about him. Bond achieves this through the risky technique of frequently-changing points of view. The reader sees in turn through the eyes of most of the important shipboard characters – from the simple boy who tends the manger to the captain, and even Sir John Jervis and Horatio Nelson (well, eye, singular, in his case.) Shifting POV often makes me grind my teeth and sigh in exasperation, but Bond makes it seem sweet and natural. The charming narrative quirks, like the trope that brings us aboard Nelson’s flagship in time for the battle, are worthy of Patrick O’Brian; moreover, they flow naturally from a well-established understanding of the characters involved. Bond’s prose is clear and writerly with none of the awkward little lapses that pull the reader’s attention away from the story. Alaric Bond has laid the groundwork for a great series of Age of Fighting Sail novels and I can only hope that the next one comes soon. I am mystified and disappointed that this book is not available in a handsome hardcover edition and marketed by a major publishing house. Editors take note – somebody has missed the boat on this one!
Description of: The Jackass Frigate
Author: Alaric Bond