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Customer Review

on 28 October 2012
This is a fascinating piece of research into what might have happened to the infamous lost English colony that settled on Roanake Island off the coast of (then) Virginia in the mid 16th century and subsequently vanished without trace.

Set to the backdrop of English and Spanish attempts to colonise the Americas, the war between England and Spain and the Spanish Armada, in the time of (and featuring) such notable entities as Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, it traces what we know and highlights what we don't about the fate of a group of English "planters" that were left at the garrison on the island to await supplies and the rest of their family members.

The traditional version of the mystery is that when this group of settlers arrived, they found the existing garrison abandoned and the stockade devoid of soldiers except for one corpse. When the relief expedition finally arrived, delayed by the war, three years later, the settlement was empty with no trace of the planters that had been left there three years earlier.

The story becomes more and more complex as more questions are thrown open. Evidence of whether the settlers were religious "separatists" fleeing the shadow of the Inquisition is examined; as are the settlers' relationships with the nearby native tribes. But it is the intrigue at the court of Elizabeth I that may provide more answers; the repeated failures of experienced ship captains to set sail or dock on time, to resupply, or navigate round areas they knew well; as the story unfolds, it appears the colonists might have been doomed from the start, pawns in a game of rich courtiers' egos trying to destroy their rivals' projects.

The book is written with no short supply of drama and jeopardy, and the chapters' cliffhanger endings are often excellent. However the author has a strange habit of slipping between a passive present tense and third-person past tense, which sometimes makes the prose awkward. The structure of the chapters and research is also a little clunky. Because there are so many different expeditions out to the Americas, it can be confusing as to which of the three main ones to Roanoke the author is referring; Miller at first doesn't tackle the elements of the mystery in chronological order. It's only until later that the author establishes a pattern of gradually going backwards in time to explore which decisions led to what actions.

Nevertheless, despite these criticisms of grammar and organisation, it's a really fascinating tale. Both an informative look at some of the historical practices of the day, such as Elizabeth I's court practically degenterating into a contest between courtiers trying to gain the most favours, for example by seeing who could dance or dress the most outrageously. In terms of the native North Americans, it's good to read about their houses, towns, plantations and temples, in an age where they were great nations with kings, long before before the time of the reservations (though in many cases the Europeans' treatment of them was still as barbaric as it ever was to become later). It also highlights the terribly sad and desperate stories of innocent men, women and children who were possibly being sacrificed to preserve the ego of, or ensure the demotion or destruction of, their competitors; the evil face of intrigue, and the psychopathic need for certain individuals' positions and power, no matter who has to die to see it achieved.
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