Saturday, March 31, 2012

Seahawk Burning

When I was first asked to review Seahawk Burning by Randall Peffer, I was somewhat skeptical about whether I would enjoy it. I have never been a fan of nautical historical novels with all that talk of topgallants and spirketting and spankers. Hey, I'm a Laser sailor. Why should I be interested in spirketting spankers, for Pete's sake?

I needn't have worried. Seahawk Burning is, at its core, a story about naval warfare during the American Civil War but it is (to my great relief) sparing in its treatment of reeves and roaches and rostrums and things of that ilk. It focuses much more on the personal feelings of the novel's principal characters and the political intrigues surrounding the war. Actually I do like political novels about real-life events, and so I found Seahawk Burning immensely entertaining.

Seahwak Burning is the final novel in a trilogy by Randal Peffer about the Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes. The action follows Semmes and his ship the CSS Alabama as he seizes and burns scores of Yankee merchant ships while dodging Federal Navy ships trying to catch him. I had always thought that the naval action in the Civil War was principally along the eastern seaboard of North America, but the Alabama was, in fact, waging her war of terror all the way across the South Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Captain Raphael Semmes standing by CSS Alabama's 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863.
U.S. Naval Historical Center photograph, original photograph by an unknown photographer.

The novel follows three other narrative threads related to Semmes' campaign: the political scene in Washington as President Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, discuss how to put an end to the Alabama's destruction of the nation's shipping, while simultaneously struggling with various other political forces hampering their efforts; the activities of US Navy Captain John Winslow and his ship the USS Kearsarge as he prepares to trap and destroy the Alabama; and the travels of Semme's mistress, Maude Galway, as she seeks to evade capture by both Federal and Rebel agents.

Allan Pinkerton and Harriet Tubman play a part in the story and there is the occasional mention of a minor character somehow involved on the fringes of the plots against Lincoln - John Wilkes Booth. This gives the novel a strong sense of impending doom which mirrors the forebodings of Semmes and Winslow as the story leads to what the reader feels all along will be the inevitable final scene of an epic naval battle between the Alabama and the Kearsarge.

Edouard Manet. The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. 1864.
The John G. Johnson Art Collection, Philadelphia, PA, USA

The switching of the narrative between the four main threads of action gives the book a fast pace and I found it totally gripping. I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next to each of the principal characters and could hardly bear to put the book down. I also particularly enjoyed Peffer's accounts of some of the technical problems that naval captains of the day grappled with on sailing ships that also had the new-fangled coal-fired steam engines for extra speed.

I think this book may even have converted me to being a fan of historic naval fiction. About two thirds of the way through it I realized I was actually getting a kick out of all the talk of stunsails and royals and starboard whisker stays and the like, even if I still have no real idea what they are.

I give Seahawk Burning two thumbs up.

Oh, and for my two readers who think that you can't have a sailing blog or a sailing story without some knitting... there is some knitting in Seahawk Burning. Really!


Chris said...

Based on your review, I have purchased the first two books in the series for my Nook. (Depending on how those read and when the last in the series becomes available, I'll probably buy that one, too.)

Based on your complaint about zero comments, I entered this one. So there.

Tillerman said...

Thank you Chris. Hope you enjoy the books.

Chris said...

Now having read the first of the two that I bought for the Nook, I'll give you the same review that I gave on B&N:

The story itself has an engaging and interesting plot, at least moderately interesting and complicated characters, and seems to be true to much historical fact. Yes, it has curse words and foul language; it's a sea story set during wartime - foul language is apropos in both contexts. However, the editing (and the slipshod writing that was allowed to pass into the final manuscript - I don't expect writers to be perfect from the get-go, but their editors have to look out for them!) was so atrocious that it detracts - a lot! - from the enjoyment of the narrative.

Maybe this wasn't the case with the bound version. Perhaps there is a different editing process that goes into the creation of an e-book. Maybe it has to do with electronic media somehow, but the version on my Nook had whole paragraphs missing from the text, run-on paragraphs with dialog from multiple speakers separated only by quotation marks, ambiguous pronouns, excessive, and misplaced, comma use (like that little example there) that threw this reader out of the story time after time.

Chris said...

Still ... I'm looking forward to the next in the series. We'll see.

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