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Britannia's Reach: The Dawlish Chronicles November 1879 - April 1880 Kindle Edition
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Full marks to Antoine for his unusual choice of setting for this book. Dawlish makes a career of handling slightly shady.assignments and there is something of the Mission Impossible in the way he is routinely told that Britain will disavow knowledge of and responsibility for the endeavour if it goes wrong. Here, commercial rather than political interests drive the military goals. In common with many other naval officers of his day, the protagonist Dawlish is courageous, disciplined on a personal level, and very competent at conducting necessary actions on land or sea – or on river, in this case.
The details of naval technology and customs have obviously been very thoroughly researched, and it is clear from other reviewers’ comments that on a military level the book comes over as authentic. Certainly great care has been lavished on descriptions of the military hardware and its use.
However, the book as a whole did not click with me as much as the first one. For one thing there are essentially no female characters explored sympathetically or in depth. This would be fair enough for the shipboard experience, but in Britannia’s Wolf, Antoine successfully found ways to bring female balance into the narrative.
Similarly, the combat action takes over the whole book from early on, and other forms of interaction are largely discarded. The proportion of the book describing battle scenes is extremely high. The few “boardroom” scenes, and the one attempt to parley, scarcely provide balance. The very dubious moral basis for the action as a whole keeps drifting towards the surface, but does not drive the action or the plot: characters may dislike the position they are in, but apparently have no way to step out of it. Dawlish’s adversaries, who on the face of things might well have a greater moral claim on their side, are mostly flat characters who (with one exception) never attain a life of their own.
On a technical level there were a small number of proof reading errors, but none of a serious nature – basically minor slips of present for past tense or the like. Since these slightly increased towards the end of the book I did wonder if things got a bit hurried as a planned release date approached. The production of the kindle version is accurate and makes good use of the various features available – all in all a well turned out book worthy of the naval professionalism it describes.
The content and focus of the book means that for me this is a four-star book – I don’t really enjoy such a purely martial focus. But others who enjoy the vicarious experience of combat in the late nineteenth century will probably rate it more highly, and I feel sure that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Certainly I will be happy to look out for other books in this series as they appear.
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.
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