Review of At Drake’s Command by David Wesley Hill

ImageAuthor David Wesley Hill sent me his novel, At Drake’s Command, with a request for review.  I love historical fiction, but I’ve never read the works of C.S. Forester (the Horatio Hornblower series) and Patrick O’Brian (Jack Aubrey) because I’ve been told the books are too nautically-detailed for me to enjoy them.  Still, I enjoyed the movie portrayals of both Hornblower and Aubrey so this seemed worth a read.  I appreciated this book immediately because it’s written from the point of view of a cook, not a sailor, so the nautical terminology and the history felt really accessible to me.  I would compare this book to the works of Naomi Novik (minus the dragons of course).

The main character is Peregrine James, a 20-year-old cook who gets into trouble over a girl, endures a whipping for a crime he didn’t commit, and ends up signing on to work for Francis Drake as an assistant to the ship’s cook.

Out of the corner of my eye I observed her captain striding along the quay side with the swaggering bow-legged step of a man more accustomed to having a heaving deck under the soles of his boots than the solid stone upon which he was walking.  He had a slight limp in one leg, where a piece of lead shot still lodged, a souvenir of battle.  I recognized him by the gold of his hair and by his fiery beard and by the boom of his laughter as he bantered with a companion.  This was no great achievement, however, since everyone in Plymouth, from the lowest scullion to the highest aristocrat, knew him or knew of him.  His name was Drake, Francis Drake.

Perry knows nothing about exploration or sailing, but soon learns that on a ship, everyone’s expected to help with everything.  His first lesson is to climb up the rigging on the ship’s mast, and what seems like a daunting task at first quickly becomes second nature to this smart and adaptable character.

Because he’s compulsively honest, Perry runs into lots of conflicts aboard the ship, which is rife with corruption.  He’s at times a little too brash and too quick-witted to be believable, but it makes for a fun story.

The writing is detail-rich, especially the attention paid to geography.  Hill’s goal in writing this book is to trace the actual route of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577.  He does a nice job combining history with entertainment, and also educating the reader at the same time.

Hill notes in the book’s Historical Preface:

The wealth of information about the voyage has allowed me to follow the adventure almost on a daily basis as the fragile wood ships proceeded across the brine.  Google Earth has allowed me to look down upon the places they anchored and to see the large black rock where the crew caught fish five hundred years ago.  Although this is a novel, I have attempted to present an accurate portrayal of the voyage, embellishing history rather than manufacturing it.  Wherever possible, I have used the actual words of my characters, allowing them to speak for themselves across the divide of time.

If you know a ton about nautical history, Hill’s writing style may be distracting.  He tends to explain nautical terms as he writes about them, which I found very helpful.  But then I know little about sailing in the 1500s.  Here’s a good example.

Since morning a sailor had been taking soundings from the bow in order to determine the depth of the ocean, which was a measurement used by navigators to help identify their location and to provide warning of shallow water, an unpredictable danger when approaching an unfamiliar shore.  Every so often he threw overboard a line with a lead weight and allowed it to pay out.  Marks on the line ticked off the length of a fathom, which is the distance between a man’s hands when they are stretched to either side, about two yards.

Perry may seem a little too heroic at times for a young man who has never sailed or fought.  Still, Hill deftly uses Perry’s knowledge of cookery to aid him in times of struggle – he’s more successful fighting enemies using ground chili pepper rather than a sword.  Hill pays a lot of attention to weaponry, which my husband would appreciate.  He also explores a lot of different cultures that the crew encounter on their voyage.

This book is the first of a series, and the end of this book will definitely leave you wanting to read the next one.  Unfortunately it’s being written as we speak, although I’ve been told by the author that the research has been completed so it shouldn’t be long.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel in exchange for an objective review.  The author had no input in the content of this review.

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