If I had an outsized gospel voice that could penetrate digital walls, this review would just be me singing “Oh, happy day!” But that wouldn’t be good for your ears, not to mention the fact that it would be pretty insufficient as reviews go. So I’ll just have to settle for outsized elation in plain old black and white.
Why? Well, one big reason is the 1814 nautical setting, which puts the history back in historical:
- Frigates and gunneries and schooners, oh my!
- References and details about the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815.
- 19th century medicine, replete with guaiacum, mercury salt, and lots of guts, both metaphorical and literal.
The key is making it unobtrusive. I actually had to dig quite a bit to find all those references, oblique or explicit. But for the first time in awhile, I felt truly immersed in an historical period. It’s not always pretty, but it sure feels real. And that’s an awesome feeling.
There is also elation for the heroine, who has just the right balance between pragmatism, innocence, low self-esteem, and dignity. Charlotte “Charley” Alcott grew up assisting her medical father in a small English village, but when he dies she takes ship to Jamaica where she hopes her godfather, also a surgeon, will take her in and allow her to assist him. Medicine is her interest and her skill, while dresses and traditionally feminine pursuits never suited her. For simplicity’s sake, she maintains her masculine attire during the Atlantic crossing, posing as a boy. Unfortunately, midway through her journey an American pirate kidnaps her. Familiar, yes. Clichéd, no.
Handsome Black Davy Fletcher, the captain of the Fancy, is the kidnapper, and I appreciated the nuances to his character, a refreshing blend of machismo, humor, and male foolishness. He and his brother Henry are the scions of a Baltimore shipping company, but during their voyage Henry is severely wounded. With no qualified surgeon aboard, David hoists the black flag, pretends to be a pirate, waylays the first ship to cross his path, and steals Charley away at gunpoint.
The premise didn’t faze me when I was racing through the book, but in hindsight I did wonder. Why is there no doctor on board the Fancy to treat Henry’s injuries? Well, I suppose the Fancy is first and foremost a merchant ship, even though it became outfitted for privateering, and a fully qualified surgeon may not have been high on the priority list. Or maybe he died. There are enough possibilities that I can let it pass. But more problematic is Henry’s injury, which is severe enough to warrant amputation, and whose cause is not explained. I find this odd. It doesn’t affect the plot or characterization, but skipping out on an explanation lessons the impact of such a pivotal plot point. And yeah, it bugs me.
My only other nitpick regards part of David and Charley’s relationship, which runs swimmingly and believably enough on Charley’s side. For a good portion of the book, David treats Charley as a boy, and they develop a real rapport that convinces me of their compatibility. I loved seeing Charley fall in love with Davy, and I loved seeing Davy loving Charley back.
But there’s a part missing, and that’s Davy falling in love with Charley. The situation’s not exactly ideal, because it begins when Davy still thinks Charley is a boy, and subsequently fears for his manhood. But there wasn’t quite enough development from Davy’s point of view to convince me that he truly became attracted to Charley when she was still in pants.
However, I should emphasize that these are, overall, minor concerns that did not affect my enjoyment of the book. And I really liked it. Charley is a wonderful heroine, plain but strong, who doesn’t lack for spirit or brains, and whose character is her beauty. And despite some uneven development, David Fletcher is an enjoyable hero who gains major points by seeing past her plain exterior. Darlene Marshall is now on my glom list, and I very much look forward to more from her in the future.