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Britannia's Shark: The Dawlish Chronicles: April - September 1881 Kindle Edition
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The action takes us from the elegance of the Austro-Hungarian Adriatic to the squalor of revolutionary Cuba, via London and the United States. The scenes in a post-Civil War New York and Long Island, with shadowy Fenians and the (real-life) inventor of the first truly viable submarine, were particularly good.
But if I'm honest, the setting and storyline of the first in the series, Britannia's Wolf, and the Dawlish (and Florence) that we got to know in that book, were more keenly drawn; and the second, Britannia's Reach, was better paced. The action in No. 3 was perhaps just a little too relentless, a little too prolonged, to maintain what both those earlier books achieved: the sense that this was a real, flawed, flesh-and-blood character involved in activities that, while extraordinary by our own tame standards, might actually have befallen an ambitious career officer.
The developing theme of a sort of special agent (reminiscent of McCutchan's Halfhyde) is less convincing and appealing to me than that of a man whose career has been blighted through the social snobbery caused by marrying a servant having to put himself in the way of danger in order to secure the advancement that his qualities otherwise deserve.
If Mr Vanner can resist the temptation to over-dramatise the next instalments, and relies instead on the inherent drama and romance of the sea, the ships and the period itself that provide his backdrop, and the strong characterisation he has created for Nicholas and Florence Dawlish, I have no doubt that they will become great and lasting favourites.
As always the star of the show is Dawlish himself, a very British hero in the best way. Resourceful man of action though he is, Dawlish is far more interesting than the square jawed action hero we often meet in lesser works. Once more our hero does not have things all his own way, he knows failure and wrestles with doubt and fear before finally emerging with his honour somehow intact. I look forward greatly to the next instalment.
The story takes our hero on the quest for an early weapon of war that is threatening the British while in the hands of Irish Republicans. It has been designed by a man more like a school teacher than an inventor of a weapon that would go on to terrorise both world wars; that man is John Philip Holland and that weapon is the submarine.
The story is fast paced and thrilling, taking Dawlish from the Adriatic to Britain, then on to America and Cuba. It successfully encompasses the feeling of the 1880's, new technology, old empires and people striving for independence. In Dawlish, Antoine Vanner has created not a boy's own hero of comic book tales (and certain other so called grown up novels), but a fallible human, especially when he is confronted by the claustrophobic interior of the submarine.
Dawlish certainly has ambition as his drive, maybe too much for modern sensibilities, but this is the Victorian age and in showing these traits off Antoine Vanner has not fallen into the trap of recreating the past in our modern image, (I just wish the BBC would do the same, with such programmes as Merlin). He has shown the very real motivation of the Victorian Royal Navy officer and his stories are much the better for it.
I very much look forward to the next instalment of the Dawlish Chronicles.
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