It was as fine a day to be whipped as any he’d ever seen but the good weather didn’t make Peregrine James any happier with the situation he was in. Unfairly convicted of a crime he had not committed, the young cook was strung from the whipping post on the Plymouth quayside when he caught the eye of Francis Drake and managed to convince the charismatic sea captain to accept him among his crew. Soon England was receding in their wake and Perry was serving an unsavory collection of sea dogs as the small fleet of fragile wood ships sailed across the deep brine. Their destination was secret, known to Drake alone. Few sailors believed the public avowal that the expedition was headed for Alexandria to trade in currants. Some men suspected Drake planned a raid across Panama to attack the Spanish in the Pacific. Others were sure the real plan was to round the Cape of Storms to break the Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade. The only thing Perry knew for certain was that they were bound for danger and that he must live by his wits if he were to survive serving at Drake’s command.
When I read the synopsis for At Drake’s Command it immediately appealed to me for one major reason: this is the sort of book my dad used to read to me when I was little; a rousing naval adventure, preferably set in the past, with scurvy sea dogs, ship wrecks, pirates and the exotic vista’s of lands as yet undiscovered. I’ve often professed my love for De Scheepsjongens van Bontekoe (Bontekoe’s Ship’s Boys) by Johan Fabricius, which is set in the time of the Dutch East India Company, but he also read me books by K. Norel, which were set not just in the Dutch Golden Age, but in the Second World War as well. And he read me books by Johan H. Been, who wrote two adventures about Michiel de Ruyter’s ship’s boy. So how on earth could I say no to reviewing At Drake’s Command?
The book turned out to be a wholly different beast than those named above. First of all, it is definitely an adult book and secondly, has a far more period feel about it. The latter is mostly due to the writing style. The book is written as a memoir by its protagonist Peregrine James, much in the style of Robinson Crusoe, though far less moralising than Defoe’s seminal work. But it also utilises the same literary conventions of the early novels, such as giving spoilers in the chapter titles, describing things in what we would consider unnecessary details nowadays, calling characters by their full name continuously, and the same way of tacking on elucidations to statements, terms, or names, for example: “And you are familiar with cooking as it is done on the continent, which is to say, in the manner of the Italians and French?” (p. 17) It was so well done, that at one point I was really annoyed with the writing, until I realised this was exactly what I had struggled with in my eighteenth century Lit class, when I just couldn’t get through Laurence Sterne or Henry Fielding. Over a decade later I’m more tolerant and better-versed in the early English Novel to not mind as much and I can appreciate the skill it takes to emulate it well. In fact, change the title to The Peregrinations of Mr. Peregrine James, followed by a suitably rambling sub-title and it would fit right in with its eighteenth-century brethren.
Peregrine, our protagonist and narrator is a likeable enough fellow and I liked his outsider’s view of shipboard life. At the same time, the reader can see him growing fond of his shipmates and his new occupation and displaying agility and cleverness in dealing with whatever is thrown at him. At the same time, at some points his story pushes the boundaries of the believable, but then again Perry has become a sailor and as he acknowledges himself, nobody likes or tells a tall tale as a sailor does. Perry is surrounded by a crew of characters ranging from the honourable, Parson Fletcher, to the morally dubious, Francis Drake, and everything in between. However, most of the crew remains rather flat and no more than a name, only those that Perry has lots of dealings with or those he thinks it’s important to tell us about in detail become more than a passing name on a page. The amount of ‘names on a page’ could at times lead to a bit of confusion as a name would ring a bell and I had to check back who they were again.
At Drake’s Command left me with somewhat mixed feelings; as at university, I struggled with this style of writing, however, the plot was entertaining and filled with adventure and the book was without a doubt well researched. It is not an easy text, for the reasons described above and due to the numerous different languages found on its pages, which weren’t always translated completely into English. I admire Hill’s skill in emulating the early English novel – down to the cliff hanger ending of this first volume in the series – and once I had settled into the style, I found the narrative quite enjoyable, but this style probably won’t work for everyone. If you enjoy historical naval fiction or the early English novel, however, At Drake’s Command is well worth a read.
This book was provided for review by the author.