A Battle Won by S. Thomas Russell, Berkley Books 2010 – How often do you open a book by an author you don’t know and find a dedication inside to someone you do know? It seems that S. Thomas Russell, like me, lives on Vancouver Island (I assume he must live in or near the Comox Valley where I used to reside), writes historical naval fiction and shares fond memories of Jean Kotcher, someone we had as a mutual friend before her untimely death. I confess that just seeing Jean’s name put me in a reflective frame of mind before embarking on this novel.
Once I began reading, it quickly revealed itself as a story solidly in the historical naval genre – the ‘age of fighting sail’ as it’s sometimes described. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed C.S. Forester’s books about Horatio Hornblower, Dudley Pope’s Nicholas Ramage series, Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey stories or Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho novels, Russell’s ‘A Battle Won’ is going to be right up your alley.
Each of these series has an enterprising naval officer struggling up the chain of British naval command in the Napoleonic wars. Russell’s character, Captain Hayden, is no exception. By sheer daring-do, he confounds his detractors by accomplishing the impossible while engendering the loyalty of his crew. Russell throws in a few twists – someone high in the admiralty has it in for Hayden, his reputation must survive the besmirching of an unlucky chance of being on a vessel involved with a mutiny and his love life is blown into disarray when he helps a pair of females escape to England and discovers that the old maxim: ‘A good deed never goes unpunished’ is in operation.
Russell, an avid sailor, has a winning way with describing life on a sailing ship, even for those like me who can barely distinguish a jib from a poop deck. His Captain Hayden is a compelling creation and the supporting cast comes to life as they battle against the arch foe – Napoleon and the republicans of France. It’s not that there weren’t a few oddities in the story – a long chapter devoted to an improvised golf game in Gibraltar was certainly odd, and rather unlikely. The religious attitudes of the Reverend Smosh came across as another curious anomaly – while I could believe someone holding the views, I thought it unlikely that a minister would express them so openly during the early part of the nineteenth century.
And then there was his use of the four-letter ‘F’ word. I admit to struggling with the use of this word when I was writing my own historical novel set in a similar period. I had someone strongly disapprove of my use of it, despite research showing that the word, and/or a number of derivations, goes back to medieval times. Even though sailors during the Napoleonic wars certainly had the reputation of using ‘colorful’ language, I’ve never encountered the word in fiction written during that period. Jane Austen, for instance, has, in a few passages, used ‘G–‘ as an oath. Even that was so daring that it could not be printed in full. So, was the ‘F’ word really not in use during that time or was it in use, but blocked in print due to the scruples of eighteenth century publishers attempting to save their readers distress? Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to F’ing die. F’s the right them, F’s to the left of them… Hmmm – does quite have the ring of the original poem.
DL:DR – A few quibbles in an otherwise solid and engaging book that will have the enthusiasts looking for the sequels, the latest being a fairly recent publication.