Under Enemy Colours by Sean Thomas Russell

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Under Enemy Colours by Sean Thomas Russell
Buy Under Enemy Colours from Amazon.co.uk

Buy Under Enemy Colours from Amazon.com

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Natalie Baker
Reviewed by Natalie Baker
Summary: An enjoyable naval adventure set at the very beginning of the Napoleonic Wars. Fans of Hornblower and Sharpe should find this story hits the mark.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141033143

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Lieutenant Charles Hayden – English father, French mother, serving in the British Royal Navy, is more than deserving of the rank of Master and Commander, but lacking in influential friends in English society in general and naval circles in particular, is unable to secure a commission. Offered only a post as First Lieutenant aboard a ship with a tyrant captain and a recent suspicious death, Hayden must safeguard his honour, make a crew and their vessel shipshape, and discover and report back to his superiors at the Admiralty just what exactly is going on aboard the Themis in order to have any hope of saving his career. In the meantime, he has his own personal doubts and secrets to hide as regards the nascent war with France.

Billed on the cover as being in the tradition of Patrick O'Brian, this novel owes far more to C S Forester with a dash of Bernard Cornwell and is absolutely none the worse for it. There's plenty of fast-paced action, and an animated cast of officers and crew, who range from the caricatured to the finely nuanced. Hayden is a wonderful – if at times somewhat subdued – lead character, however his leadership skills are not in doubt and the added attraction of him being fluent in French lends itself well to some wonderful scenes when in close contact with enemy ships, as well as a wonderful spying excursion on land in Britanny. It also causes him more than a little self-doubt.

The plotline is fairly predictable but that isn't the point, it's in the details where this story really comes alive, Hayden's relationship with other officers and the crew as well as a sketchy but budding romance (which sometimes feels shoehorned in to provide some exposition, but is generally well done), and the by-now-expected wealth of naval terminology which, to the author's credit, is neatly written in without feeling forced, dry, or lecturing. The style makes for an easy and comfortable read and I found it a constant page-turner that I could quite happily get lost in.

At times it can feel like there are too many characters to keep track of, however most are wonderfully entertaining, in particular the young adventurous midshipman, Wickham, and there's even a smidge of gossip about Nelson in the officer's mess. Hayden can feel a little too perfect, his only flaw apparently being half-French – however that didn't stop me rooting for him. Likewise Captain Hart can seem too much of a villain with no redeeming features. The novel also tries to give a good feeling of revolutionary danger, as with the naval side of the story, a great deal is packed in without it being over-explained, it sometimes feels like it's going a bit far but in general I think the author gets the balance right.

The two weakest points of the book are arguably the most important for the reader: the beginning and the end. The first chapter is confusing and luckily only lasts three pages since it's weak and doesn't provide anything that we're not instantly told in the second chapter. As for the ending, after all the dramatic action of the book, the final sequence, while important to the plot, drags and too often – although necessarily given the circumstances (which I don't want to give away!) – feels like a drawn-out re-tread. The ending is therefore a little disappointing, however overall this is a good solid beginning to what looks to be a series, and I'm hoping for both prequels and sequels chronicling Lieutenant Hayden's career in the future!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another story of a troubled voyage, there's Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne.

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