Thursday, 29 May 2014
Comprehensive Review of Britannia's Wolf
"The year is 1877. The world is slowly lurching into the modern age, politically, socially, and technology-wise. Vanner hits all of these themes in the course of the novel, and will doubtless expand upon them in future books. The setting is the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. The Ottoman Empire is slowly decaying, and the Russian empire is only a bit behind on the road to history's dustbin. The Turks, however, control the Bosphorus, the narrow strip of water separating the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. In that control they prevent the Russians from access to the open seas and the Suez Canal, Britain's shortest passage to India where they, and the Russians, are engaged in the great game of control of the sub-continent. It is definitely not in Britain's interest that the Russians gain access to open waters, and possibly threaten the canal, in spite of truly wretched behavior on the part of the Turks.
Among other steps the British take is to dispatch Nicholas Dawlish, Commander, RN, to serve in the Turkish navy, put out a bit of stick,stiffen their spines, and raise hell with Russian supply shipping on the Black Sea, and see what else he can do to disrupt Russian efforts. Dawlish has, ahh, "resigned" officially from the RN, in order to maintain the fiction that he is simply looking for better rank (Captain) and more money, in the Ottoman navy. A not unheard of ruse in those days. He takes command of the Turkish (but British built) ironclad Mesrustiyet and it's Turkish crew, and starts working on his assignment. With no small amount of success.
Mesrustiyet is a good example of changing naval technology. The age of sail was over, and the slow transition to the age of iron and steam was underway. Nobody was sure what iron/steam warships should look like, and it took another 20-40 years after the close of this book for the modern battleship to assume final form. Mesrustiyet was heavily armed- 4 12" cannons, and armored, but rather slow, and not what could be called a good sea vessel. She also sported a large iron ram that was something of an anachronism at the time, but Dawlish eventually makes good use of it. This was not a vessel that an age of sail warship could engage with any hope of success. The other major technological advance that figures in the book is the presence of Winchester repeating rifles- used to excellent effect on several occasions.
Trying to explain the political background to the book is simply impossible. There is a reason that the word Byzantine still applies to extremely complex situations. Things do get Byzantine, and Dawlish suffers from it.
There is no small amount of action, both afloat (the above mentioned ramming sequence), and ashore, where the Winchesters get used. Vanner is not at all squeamish about describing the hardships of combat, both on the participants and on the far too many civilians caught in the crossfire of the combatants and their own religious/tribal/political/loyalty conflicts. The final retreat from Ljubimec at the end of the book is particularly harrowing.
Vanner has us in new territory in this series. Patrick O'Brian and others have produced many,many, volumes covering the Napoleonic era of age of sail combat. There has been some fiction dealing with ironclad warfare - most recently James L. Nelson's two volumes on the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. Vanner has virtually untouched territory to spin his tales involving iron, steam, and the largely small and forgotten wars in the latter third of the 19th century. I think sailing, or steaming, on previously uncharted seas should produce an interesting saga.
My criticisms are mild, and not meant to minimize how much I enjoyed the book. I could really have used some better maps to keep track of where the action was taking place. That could easily just be me, the reader, and not apply to anybody else. One of the two things in the book that struck me as ever so slightly off was the budding romance with Miss Morton. I can't even really put a finger on it, but it was not entirely convincing, at least to me. Maybe I'm too American to really feel the depths of British class prejudice. The other thing that struck me was that Dawlish was very lucky in his Turkish subordinates. To a man they shaped up and did their duty, sometimes from not very auspicious beginnings. Not a rotter or traitor in the crowd?
All in all a wonderful read, and now I have to go buy the other volumes in print. Highly recommended."
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