Richard Woodman,
Nathaniel Drinkwater #1: An Eye of the Fleet
(John Murray, 1981; Sheridan House, 2001)

Richard Woodman likes yanking his readers right out of the action in order to lay a little exposition on them.

Believe me, as an avid fan of nautical fiction, I enjoy learning the details of history from the Age of Sail as much as the next person. But Woodman, who in An Eye of the Fleet has crafted an otherwise excellent start to his Nathaniel Drinkwater series of novels, seldom bothers to work facts seamlessly into the story; instead, he just plops a few paragraphs of textbook narrative into the tale wherever he deems appropriate.

The battle that followed was one of the most dramatic ever fought by the Royal Navy. The waters over which the opposing fleets contended were to be immortalised twenty-five years later when Nelson was to conquer and die off Cape Trafalgar, but the night action of the 16th/17th January 1780 was to be known by no geographical name.

Worse, Woodman often throws in historical trivia that had not, as of the time of this novel's setting, occurred. It throws off the mood of a period novel when the reader is abruptly thrust into some other era, with details that could not be known to the characters in this story.

He was left to the night ruminating on the dangers of the unmarked Wolf. This totally isolated pinnacle of rock was, with the Eddystone, the most feared danger to mariners on the south coast of England. Continually swept by swells on even the calmest days it was to be 1795 before an abortive attempt was made to erect a beacon on it. This structure collapsed at the first gale and it was to be a generation before a permanent seamark was finally grouted into that formidable outcrop.

Yes, yes, all fascinating stuff. But Eye is set in 1780, and young midshipman Drinkwater doesn't have the foreknowledge of those events, and they really have no direct bearing on the adventures facing him.

That complaint aside, the novel is an entertaining introduction to Drinkwater, who would go on to be the protagonist of 14 novels by Woodman. He begins the novel young and unsure of himself, low in confidence and even a bit cowardly in the face of danger. He grows rapidly in the role, however, exceeding his peers and gaining the attention of his superiors in short order. Without knowing what lies waiting for him in the series ahead, I can suppose he has a promising career in store.

American readers should be warned that, while most novels set in this era pit the British navy against the French or Spanish fleets, the villain here is the upstart rebels in the American colonies. And, while those rebels would go on to win themselves a country (I hope I didn't spoil the ending for anyone there), their seamen in Eye tend to be cowardly, devious and cruel.

Flaws aside, this is a strong beginning to Drinkwater's future adventures. British navy buffs should enjoy it.

book review by
Tom Knapp

12 November 2011

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