So it’s historical seafaring fiction with a nice side dose of politicking and intrigue. Or so the blurb claims.
Too bad that the intrigue is ignored for huge chunks of the book and that most of the politicking is shoved aside in favor of the protagonist whining.
As you can see, I am not dead. Just been rather busy coping with work and some other things that I don’t trust myself to detail without cursing and threats of violence.
So I figured the best way to vent my anger would be on a frustrating book. Specifically, Gentleman Captain by J.D. Davies.
This book is one that should have, from the summary, been completely awesome and right up my alley, and for a while, it did seem like the book was going to meet my expectations. The book opens with Captain Matthew Quinton aboard the good ship Happy Restoration. It’s the middle of a storm, there’s total chaos on board, and he’s in very dangerous waters. And he doesn’t have a damn clue what he’s doing.
It costs him. The ship hits a rock and sinks. He and Kit Farrell, who was the only member of his crew who was trying to help him, are the only survivors. Everyone else drowns.
So why would someone so clueless be in charge of a ship? The answer lies in the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell’s ousting, and the fact that the new monarch is trying to keep his naval officers of the right parties. This doesn’t always work, in that some of the ships need to be commanded by people who were among the former republic, and who had since recanted, at least verbally.
Now this premise is a really interesting one, and one that in theory I would love to read. I love the idea of someone who’s got no experience in something being forced to participate in it. Given that Matthew has to participate in a leadership role when he gets a second command, before a crew that knows he’s completely unsuited for it, there could have been a fascinating story there about Matthew attempting to get his feet under him and gradually fighting his way to competency.
Unfortunately Davies isn’t content with that. So he throws in a mystery plot, and it doesn’t work at all.
The biggest problem with the way Davies wrote in this mystery is that he was incapable of balancing the mystery with Matthew learning how to be a captain (and even that wasn’t written very well, but I’ll get to that later). So there would be long stretches of the novel focused on nothing but Matthew’s clueless bungling on board his new ship Jupiter, with occasional reminders that there was supposed to be a murder. These reminders often took the form of James Vyvyan, the nephew of the murdered captain, who was easily the worst-characterized person in the whole book through no fault of his own, poor guy. He pretty much served as a mouthpiece to say things like “Hey, remember my uncle? Who was better than you all and WAS MURDERED?” at random intervals. At many points in the story, it seemed like Davies would forget about this fact and then use Vyvyan as the reminder for when he recalled that there was supposed to be this mystery.
The worst part of this is that there honestly didn’t need to have been a murder mystery for me to have read the story. I would have been fine with just reading about Matthew getting his sea-legs along with a good dose of groundwork in what the political factions were. Gentleman Captain is supposed to be the beginning of a series, so there would have been more than enough time for Davies to explore the intrigue once he’d established his characters better. As it was, almost every side character was much more interesting than Matthew, who incidentally is one of the whiniest narrators I’ve ever come across (and I’ve read all the Twilight books and a good chunk of Catcher in the Rye).
I couldn’t stand this guy through the majority of the book. He felt like Horatio Hornblower stripped of everything that had made him tolerable and endearing and made ten times snottier and self-righteous. There were so many points throughout the book where Matthew would be whining about those nasty Cornishmen, or that nasty person of inferior station, and I would want to smack him upside the head just to get him to shut up and move on to the plot. He also spent an annoying amount of time sulking in his cabin, which made me want to kick him. Even Horatio Hornblower, for all his faults, was actually capable of working with people he didn’t like and unlike Matthew, Horatio started as close to the bottom of ranks as someone of good birth could get. Now to be fair, they are from very different time periods, but their situations had quite a few parallels, and in every parallel Horatio came out ahead. Hands down, no contest.
There were some good points in this book. The final battle action was great, which is why I was so mind-boggled that it took us A WHOLE FREAKING BOOK to get there. The seafaring stuff itself, anything to do with the running of the ship and how ill-at-ease Matthew was there, was excellent- J.D. Davies is apparently an authority on such things, and it really showed. So it was a shame, overall that it has so many storytelling and characterization problems, because it has a lot of potential. But Davies tried to do too much in the first round, and as a result the whole thing is a long slog with minimal reward.