David Donachie,
Nelson & Emma #2: Tested by Fate
(Orion, 2000; McBooks, 2004)

In On a Making Tide, readers were introduced to Horatio Nelson, a budding young officer-to-be in His Majesty's Navy, and Emma Hart, nee Lyons, a young woman of questionable upbringing with great ambitions for her future. By book's end, both individuals, unacquainted with each other, have achieved some measure of success in reaching their aims.

Now, David Donachie continues their stories in Tested by Fate, the second book in the Nelson & Emma trilogy, as their stations in life continue to advance.

Nelson, having earned some notoriety fighting for the British against the fledgling U.S. Navy in their War for Independence, has done well -- but earned some powerful enmity among his peers and superiors -- in subsequent service in the Caribbean, where he also won himself a bride. Now, war has broken out with Revolutionary France, and Nelson finds himself commanding a 64-gun ship in the Mediterranean.

Emma, meanwhile, has borne a child to one lover, lived for a while on the arm of another while making a name for herself as a somewhat scandalous artists' model and ended up as the mistress of her previous lover's uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who is the much older but highly esteemed British ambassador to the Two Sicilies. There, she becomes a confidante of the queen (the ill-fated Marie Antionette's sister) and, eventually, Sir William's wife. As Lady Hamilton, she has finally achieved the social status she has always craved, although not the passion she'd hoped for.

Then Nelson, seeking troops to help defend a key city in France, comes calling, and our two lead characters finally meet. Sparks inevitably fly.

Donachie deftly handles two books in one, shifting from Nelson's story to Emma's with ease, finally merging the two mid-book. They criss-cross from that point on, sometimes coming together and at other times standing quite a distance apart. Donachie in particular has a fine grasp of naval tactics, detailing Nelson's great victories with thrilling detail. He also gives Emma her due, painting her as intelligent and influential in the high-born circles in which she now moves.

If there's a weakness here, it's Donachie's habit of repeating for readers events from earlier in the book, as if he's not sure we'll remember the details from earlier chapters with enough clarity to understand the action as it unfolds. He goes a little overboard with the exposition, but otherwise, this is a brilliant novel that brings two great figures from history together. It only remains to be seen how their lives develop from this point on, a subject for the third and final book in the series.

book review by
Tom Knapp

30 June 2012

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