The year is 1800 as 13-year-old Peter Raven sails as midshipman aboard the Torrone, only to be hurt in a sea battle off France. When he sails again to the Caribbean, the ship is attacked by pirates, and he is set adrift to save himself. Meanwhile Lucy Cosgrove (18), a young American heiress is drawing attention in Paris by her beauty and her skill as a sharpshooter. The head of French Navla Intelligence, General Ancre, has been tasked by Napoleon with persuading the notorious pirate Count Vallon to part with his gold in return for newly-colonised land in the United States.
There’s action, there’s romance, there’s an insanely villainous count with an island fortress in the Caribbean, naval battles, shipboard camaraderie, and family ties. All this within a recognisable historical framework peopled with three-dimensional characters. The plot takes in several countries and nationalities and it’s refreshing that the author gives every one a fair chance. Early on, Peter is warned by an experienced seaman not to believe the propaganda about the French being cowards. This is coupled with a reasonable explanation as to their inferiority at sea. One of the most noble characters we meet is General Ancre, – presented as a normal man with his dreams and ambitions – and we suffer with Ancre when his ship is destroyed by fire, and with it his life savings. The Americans are likewise given space to expound their view of the world. The only truly bad characters are the Vallon brother and sister, and they have effectively renounced any nationality.
There are of course sea battles between two or three ships, and some hand-to-hand fighting, which is all pretty much as expected in a book set in this period. But there are also a few quite gruesome scenes, all of them involving the clearly evil Count. In a turning-point scene, people we know – not just random extras – have their throats cut and are flung to the sharks, all this happening before the eyes of our young point-of-view character. Later we learn more of the Count’s depravities, for example that a young woman spy he discovered was left for dead, every bone in her body broken. It would have been surprising if there had been no violent action in a story set during what was in effect a war, but the mad sadism of the Count might be a little too much for some people.
An aspect worth admiring is the author’s ability to inform without interspersing the plot with academic asides. The reader finishes the book knowing much more about the military and political situation between England, France and America at the turn of the 19th century as well as a wealth of other incidentals which don’t intrude on the story at all. The balance of entertainment and education is hard to achieve, and most writers opt for the one or the other. I take my hat off to Mr. Molloy for managing both.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.