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Blown Away

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I recently had the pleasant opportunity to enjoy James L. Haley’s A DARKER SEA: MASTER COMMANDANT PUTNAM AND THE WAR OF 1812, the sequel to THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI. While I have not had the pleasure of reading his first work, the second is a fine place to enter into the story of our hero, Bliven Putnam. Haley does a wonderful job of engaging the reader with an overarching historically factual narrative while writing realistic characters. The individuals are generally fictional, with the inclusion of historical figures you might recognize from history textbooks. When placed in tricky situations, however, they muddle through with a determination to confront their challenges, many of which the U.S. actually faced in the War of 1812.

Through A DARKER SEA, the struggle for self-determination plays out at the individual level as well as on a grander stage between nations. The multitude of lethal challenges faced by the characters reflects the dire straits which the merchant shipping of the United States what put into once the protection of the fearsome British Royal Navy was withdrawn. More than withdrawn, the might of King George’s naval armada in the Atlantic was directed in part towards the impressment, or maritime conscription, of American merchant sailors to support Britain’s navy in its war with France. With an increase in hostilities and the British attack on the U.S.S. Chesapeake, President James Madison sets about fighting a war which he strove to avoid. Our characters are inextricably drawn into this conflict, from which they might yet snatch victory.

Haley writes in an evocative manner, sparing no detail. His simple prose and direct writing style allows the full impact of the book to cleverly weave its way into your heart, like a rapier in the hand of a duelist. The gripping action scenes are written with an eye towards the men and women involved, filling out characterization while advancing the plot hand in hand. While historical fiction always runs the risk of misrepresenting the course of events or losing the greater picture in the minutiae of the plot, the author manages to balance the two with aplomb. I particularly enjoyed appreciated the complexity of the strong female figures in A DARKER SEA. No shrinking violets here!

This book will join those of Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe in the annals of fantastic historical fiction.