April 21, 2005

Amateur Book Review: Sails on the Horizon: A Novel of the Napoleonic Wars


It’s the year 1797. England is at war with Revolutionary France and her ally Spain. Young Lieutenant Charles Edgemont is at his post on the gun deck of the HMS Argonaut and he’s about to see action for the first time, off the French coast at Brest. This, and the excellent battle scenes, begin Jay Worrall’s first novel, Sails on the Horizon, a fine –if flawed- book that owes a lot to the tales of Horatio Hornblower and Lucky Jack Aubrey. We follow Charlie for one year, a year where he takes his own command.

There is much to recommend about this book. Worrall obviously connects with the time period, and his love for maritime lore is obvious. Sails is full of the small details that make a book about this time so memorable, and wouldn’t feel out of place in a Patrick O’Brien novel. The numerous battle scenes, a staple for this genre, are uniformly excellent. Worrall captures the terror, mayhem and sheer confusion of the naval battle well. These scenes, spread evenly throughout, are the heart of this book.

The characters are less successful. The protagonist is a bit too perfect. Charles starts as a second lieutenant, hesitant and worried. The opening chapters, a battle between an overmatched Argonaut and several Spanish vessels, is the highlight of the book. It’s both a cracklin’ battle scene and the best look inside the head of Charles Edgemont. He’s hesitant about his abilities, worries about a very scared young midshipman and wonders if he’s performing well. He sort of stumbles into the role of Captain and his doubts and fears ring truer than anything that follows.

After the battle, things just go too damned well for Charlie. There is little reason to empathize with him, since he becomes a major landowner quickly, finds (and eventually marries) the girl of his dreams and starts out on a successful career. There aren’t many obstacles, and what ones do come up, like his future wife Penny Brown being a Quaker who has major problems with being with a military man, are wrapped up quickly and neatly. There are also possible problems with his best friend Daniel Bevan, who now acts as his First Lieutenant by dint of Charlie joining the Navy a mere week and a half earlier. Again, this is quickly dealt with. Charlie is obviously The Hero, but he seems a cold one, too shiny and perfect to connect with. There is also a minor issue with Penny. She is a fine character, smart and engaging, but she talks in a very –even for the time- archaic way filled with “thee” and “thou”. It starts as an amusing diversion, but becomes supremely annoying. There are times near the end of the book where the reader has to fight the temptation to skip her parts.

Despite the flaws, Sails on the Horizon is a very enjoyable book. The action scenes are excellent, and the potential is there for memorable characters, even if that doesn’t quite pan out. This is obviously meant as the first chapter in a continuing saga, and I hope it does continue.

Posted by Frinklin at April 21, 2005 05:48 PM
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