What Patrick O'Brian did for the Royal Navy in his epic series, Maine author James L. Nelson is now doing for the fledgling American navy during the Revolutionary War. Rousing plots, historical authenticity and seafaring as vivid as a slap of salt spray or a whiff of the bilge will have readers hoping Nelson can make the American Revolution last a long, long time.
The fifth in the series featuring Captain Isaac Biddlecomb, "All the Brave Fellows," takes place during the fall of 1777. With his wife and infant son aboard, Biddlecomb sails for Philadelphia to take charge of the Falmouth, a 28-gun newly built frigate, and whisk it away from the city before General Howe's invading army can seize it.
For all Biddlecomb knows, he may already be too late. But trouble comes long before Philadelphia. In an exciting, well-constructed scene of warring strategies and over-eagerness, Biddlecomb, bolstered by the company of two privateers, takes on a lone British sloop of war. But the undisciplined privateers desert him at the first threat of British cannon and the enemy forces his beloved brig Charlemagne aground, where Biddlecomb burns it rather than let the ship fall into British hands.
Shaken by his responsibility for the danger to his wife and child as well as the loss of his ship, Biddlecomb is humbled, on foot, and stalked by his old nemesis Smeaton, (a British naval officer aboard the victorious sloop) whose career was earlier blighted by Biddlecomb and whose obsessive lust for revenge occasionally seems over the top.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Falmouth is endangered, with the British invasion proceeding and the Royal Navy overwhelming the hobbled-together Pennsylvania Navy. Master shipwright Malachi Foote desperately induces a band of Continental Army deserters to help him try to save the ship.
Point of view shifts between Biddlecomb and Foote with breathtaking suspense. But, while Nelson delivers plenty of action, he places it squarely in the context of history and character, involving the reader in the squabbles between factions of the former colonials' military. State navies, for instance, a bizarre concept to the modern mind, answering to an altogether different authority than the stripling Continental Navy.
And Biddlecomb's wife is a brave, spirited woman whose agenda is sometimes comically, sometimes wrenchingly different from her husband's. His struggle to balance domestic life with naval command is deftly done. "The difference between the great cabin and the quarterdeck was startling....It took genuine effort for Biddlecomb to shift his concerns from Jack's need to be burped to his ship's need to be driven into battle." And later, during an angry disagreement with his wife: "He longed to cross swords with Smeaton, or to plunge into the thick of battle, where the emotions - terror, hatred, rage - were so pure and uncomplicated."
Nelson's page-turner brings the Revolution to life on the high seas - buffeted by weather, tide and human frailty. "All the Brave Fellows" will please old fans and win new ones.