The Unlikely Master Genius
Sailing Master Able Six’s odd name reflects his dismal origins: the sixth child abandoned that month at a workhouse orphanage, and too durable to die. His uncanny brain (he remembers absolutely everything he’s ever seen) allows him to become a Royal Navy sailing master, a position never previously attained by a bastard. Now ashore as Consul Napoleon plots to break the Peace of Amiens, Able needs work. He takes a position at St. Brendan’s, a school training other workhouse geniuses for naval service, and takes his new wife Meridee along. While this initial book in the St. Brendan’s series is uneven at best, I’m intrigued by what I hope will come in the future.
This is not a courtship romance, but rather a newlywed one. It seems Meridee and Able met in a novella, and as a result, the opening of the book is disjointed, as the author strives for a balance between recap and new content. But I quickly found myself engaged by the couple as they try to navigate their new married lives. It’s kind of sweet how they both feel determined to be worthy of the other – Able to overcome his birth, and Meridee to support his talent and advocate for him. The two are truly a team.
The setting is an intriguingly seedier, bleaker England and Portsmouth than most authors take readers to, and it’s all the more bleak because it’s inflicted on children. Stories of workhouse survival and peacetime poverty are rough, and you root for Able and his workhouse kids to make it out. As a teacher, I always side-eye sequences in which authors try to force a rapport between teacher characters and students, but this one is highly credible. Able’s own checkered ancestry gets his foot in the door, but he bonds with them on his own merits, and the kids are not clichés (although one teacher is). The excavation of a rat carcass provides entertaining but realistic fodder to enable both Able and Meridee to connect to the students.
I was happy to see a black character in this story, since historical England is often portrayed as lily-white. I will admit to some discomfort that Daisy Perry steps into the sometimes-stock role of large, protective cook, but the author addresses the situation in a way that works. She acknowledges that Daisy’s race contributes to her ability to intimidate would-be thugs in Portsmouth (and gives Meridee an awkward initial reaction to Daisy, which feels authentic). Moreover, Daisy has an internal life and history beyond the stock role. I would like to see more of her in future books, since she’s off to a good start here.
The weakest part of this story is, by far, the genius. Kelly is known for writing ordinary characters, and this voyage out of her comfort zone is not smooth sailing. I’ve read and am very fond of genius heroes, and I struggled with this unrealistic depiction of ability. Able has an eidetic memory, but his genius extends beyond that in unrealistic ways. He knows, for instance, that the Peace of Amiens is doomed, and even gives it a timetable. When the ship’s surgeon was out of commission during a naval battle, Able stepped in and performed surgery on his crewmates. How does having a perfect memory give you the ability to perform surgery? You don’t have any of the surgeon’s muscle memory. You don’t know why the surgeon used the tool he did the time you saw an amputation (size? speed? his other tool was missing that day?). Do I have to assume that Able also read and memorized every medical textbook ever – and if he did, how does he know which to follow, because there was a lot of contradiction in 19th century medicine?
It’s not just a problem of his ability being too strong. It’s also too weak. About a third of the way into the book, it’s mentioned that some boys from the school have left to join their birth families. Around the same time, Able actually sees a villainous character meeting with a known pimp (I don’t know why I’m trying to avoid spoilers here; there’s only one villain here, and he’s more obvious than a tap-dancing gorilla). Able’s prodigious brain tells him… precisely nothing. When the climax of the story rolls around, the obviousness of the villainy goes from “tap-dancing gorilla” to “Tyrannosaurus Rex leading a marching band down Fifth Avenue beneath fireworks and an Air Force flyover.” Meridee should get it, to say nothing of Able – but yet again, this genius has no clue. If Able has a memory but no processing power, or no knowledge of human nature, he shouldn’t be able to intuit surgery or predict the end of the Peace of Amiens. If he has memory and processing power, he should be able to solve this absurdly obvious mystery. It doesn’t add up. I wish Able had been an unusually talented but not absurdly brilliant man. It would have made for a smoother, more consistent story than this badly executed cartoonish superpower in the middle of a Napoleonic Era novel.
All that being said, I like the characters, and I like the setting. A flawed plot won’t turn me off of checking in for the sequel, where the story will be different. I’m looking forward to spending more time with a nice, mutually supportive married couple in an interesting setting. Hopefully, next time, the author will have a better handle on the characters and make a more consistent plot.