“Better late than never” seems an apt phrase to apply to me, now that I’ve finally read one of Julian Stockwin’s rousing high seas action-adventure series of books featuring Thomas Kydd. And I had to start at a sort of end with Victory, the latest story that shows Kydd rising to the post of frigate captain, possibly the most glamorous position in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, the environment for the series. (Another in the series, Conquest, is due in U.S. bookstores in October.) I doubt I could’ve had a better introduction to the fictional seafarer.
Full disclosure: Mr. Stockwin is something of a virtual colleague who positively reviewed my Fyddeye Guide to America’s Maritime History earlier this year. So the skeptical reader of this review would rightly view whatever I write about Victory, er, skeptically. Having said that, I found Victory to be a fun read, and even though I could only consume it in short bursts (life in the 21st century), I always wondered what would happen next with each turn of the page. After 10 previous stories, Kydd is a well-drawn character reminiscent of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey.
It’s hard for a Stockwin newbie not to compare Kydd and his close friend, the frustrated intellectual Nicholas Renzi, with Aubrey and the surgeon Stephen Maturin. But Stockwin’s writing style is open and direct, unlike O’Brian’s prose, which is often dense to the point of impenetrable. I found myself emotionally drawn to Renzi, but in a twisted way. If he were standing before me, I’d smack him for his neurotic treatment of Kydd’s sister, Cecilia.
The namesake of the book is the famed flagship of Lord Horatio Nelson, as well as the outcome of the book’s climax, the Battle of Trafalgar. Stockwin must have found himself in a bind from a dramatic perspective, because frigates played only a small role in the battle; Kydd is present, but only on the battle’s fringe. Stockwin solves this problem through the eyes of an old shipmate of Kydd’s, but Kydd’s absence from the crucial battle scenes drains them of tension, insofar as the main character is concerned.
Stockwin admits in an Author’s Note that he approached the battle with “a little trepidation.” Understandable. I’d be scared to death of writing about Chester Nimitz and the Battle of Midway, the closest equivalent in American history to Trafalgar. But Stockwin handles Nelson well and the battle itself adeptly, if a bit tentatively. It could easily have overwhelmed the fine Kydd saga, and I’m looking forward to more.