In Alaric Bond’s most recent novel, HMS Prometheus, the eighth of his Fighting Sail series, the Mediterranean is a dangerous place for the Royal Navy. In the autumn of 1803, the British fleet is overextended and vulnerable. Britain is still under the threat of invasion and Nelson needs every ship he can lay his hands on to reinforce his blockade of Toulon. French squadrons are a constant threat while Barbary pirates snap up the weak or unwary.
Captain Sir Richard Banks would like to join the fleet, but his ship, HMS Prometheus, a 74 gun ship of the line, was seriously damaged in battle and is being repaired in the Gibraltar dockyard. The extensive repairs are not his only problem. Several of his senior officers have been killed or grievously wounded and his ship is seriously undermanned. Once the ship does join Nelson, it is dispatched on a series of bold and just possibly reckless missions.
At this point, I will stop. The problem with this sort of synopsis is that it doesn’t do Bond’s novel justice. The description sounds like just another nautical adventure novel set in Age of Nelson with a heroic captain facing daunting odds. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that sort of novel. From Forrester to O’Brian and scores of authors in between and beyond, there have been many wonderful books and series of books written which follow the careers of gallant captains. Nevertheless, Bond’s Fighting Sail series doesn’t quite fit that mold.
Ships of the line in the early 19th century were perhaps the most technically advanced machines of the age. Complicated, intricate, incredibly robust and yet often quite vulnerable, what kept these great machines of war functioning was an equally diverse and complex crew of hundreds of men, (and usually a handful of women,) under the ever watchful eye of scores of commissioned and warrant officers.
What sets Alaric Bond’s novels apart is that his tales follow the lives of multiple characters and points of view, from the jack-tar on the gundeck to the surgeons in the cockpit, the officers in the wardroom and the captain on the quarterdeck. The captain may be in command of the ship but what makes both it and the novels work is the interplay between the sailors, warrant officers, midshipmen, and mates, working with, and at times, against each other. In the hands of a less skilled writer, Bond’s range of characters could either be confusing or muddled. In his Fighting Sail Series, they are more of a mosaic, each somehow fitting together seamlessly.
Readers of previous novels in the series will be pleased to be reunited with Captain Sir Richard Banks, Lieutenants King and Caulfield, the naval surgeon and his wife, Robert and Kate Manning, as well as the denizens of the gundeck, including the aging sailor Flint. New readers will have no trouble jumping right in.
It is best not to grow too attached to any character, as, as in life and in history, one can never be sure who will live and who will die. In HMS Prometheus, Captain Banks meets Admiral Nelson and seeks to follow his bold example. Banks quickly learns that the line between valor and recklessness can be perilously fine and that not all battles can be won.