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Britannia's Reach: The Dawlish Chronicles November 1879 - April 1880 Kindle Edition
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In this second Dawlish Chronicle, he takes us to Paraguay, South America, to accompany Commander Nicholas Dawlish RN on a dangerous mission for his patron and government. And it’s dangerous in many ways apart from the fighting action: a morally questionable goal, shifting alliances amongst the participants, a treacherous river and clever, experienced and honourable enemy.
Commander Dawlish is a skilled and self-disciplined naval officer driven by both honour and a deep desire for advancement. He has his faults, sensitivities and doubts which make him a rounded protagonist. He is a man of his age and sometimes seems old fashioned and patronising to 21st century readers, but spot-on for a Victorian military man.
The great strength of this book is the detail and depiction of the ships, sailing conditions, weaponry, tactics, military engineering and naval service life. I loved the balloon! If a reader wants the Tom Clancy level techno detail of the period, it’s here, and fascinating even for the non-technical reader.
For me, the detail was occasionally too much. I would have enjoyed more developed interaction between and background about the characters, particularly the opponents. And unlike the excellent Britannia’s Wolf, there was little presence of female characters; the one female enemy tended to verge on the stereotype. Perhaps more interplay with the character of the very interesting Mrs Dawlish at the beginning, thinking more about past conversations with her or references to her part in Britannia’s Wolf could have leavened the very male-centred action.
However, that action was exciting; on land and sea, naval, military, technological, political and commercial. Motivations and lack of them were deftly drawn. Dawlish’s own progressed nicely from a desire to conduct himself properly in carrying out a mission on behalf of his government’s commercial interests and his patron’s wishes to anguish at making an impossible moral choice.
Antoine Vanner pulls off a clever trick with his skilled writing and makes the opposition as varied as the group who appear to be in the right. Honour, greed, intolerance, loyalty, brutality, ideology, courage and comradeship on all sides criss-cross the narrative and this makes Britannia’s Reach an engaging read.
As I read I couldn't help but see parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Vanner draws us into this obscure, internecine conflict, a little-remembered war fought deep in the heart of the South American continent during the rise of the British Empire. The author's knowledge of the period and the events is apparent, yet the details never get in the way of a good, if violent, story. The ethics of the engagement are questionable and the author does nothing to glamorize the conflict; this is no recount of the Glorious First of June, this is no pastiche of the battle of Trafalgar. Instead, Britannia's Reach is a dark, brutal, complex story, told in a compelling style.
Instead of trying to validate Dawlish's actions as a hero's deeds, Vanner shows us his motives and his actions. Nicholas Dawlish - an honorable man, a likeable man - is forced to make a terrible choice. It is this dilemma that elevates the story above most historical action-adventure books.
Oh, the horror! The horror!
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