Although I’m not an expert on the naval genre, many of my favourite novels — Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers — have been seafaring adventures, so I had rather high expectations for S. Thomas Russell’s Under Enemy Colors. I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.
Set on board a newly-built British frigate, the Themis, during the French Revolution, it tells the story of two very different men working for the King’s Navy.
The ship’s captain, Josiah Hart, is a notorious coward and an incompetent, bumbling, tyrannical leader, but the Admiralty has turned a blind eye to his failings because he is very well connected through Mrs Hart’s family.
Charles Saunders Hayden, a seafaring man of impeccable ability, is his (reluctant) first lieutenant who has been secretly engaged to inform on Hart’s exploits. Hayden, who feels the role is beneath him, has only accepted the job because his parentage — his father is British, his mother French — has often been used to (wrongly) call his loyalty into question, and to refuse it would only jeopardise his career in the Navy.
During the ship’s adventure-filled voyage into French waters, Hayden finds himself increasingly stuck between duty and honour, between a tyrannical leader, who thinks nothing of belittling him in public, and a disaffected crew with leanings towards violence and possible mutiny…
I have to say that I loved this book from the outset. Thomas Russell has an immediate and an easy-to-read voice that rings with period authenticity. He’s a master at suspense and is so good at capturing that sense of injustice that sets the reader’s teeth on edge this book should have come with a health warning.
His vast cast of characters are imbued with a realism that is hard to fault. This is impressive given that Captain Hart could have so easily been turned into an over-the-top caricature. My only quibble is that Hayden’s personal struggle to come to terms with his identity as half-French half-English was laboured a little too strongly — such a dilemma wears thin after it’s been mentioned more than a dozen times.
As for the narrative, there’s certainly plenty of action and adventure, most of which is thoroughly entertaining. But I felt the book would have benefited from the judicious omission of a seafaring battle or two. Personally, I wanted to cut to the chase, and not revel in the guts and gunshots, of which there is much. And the ending, which is satisfying, also raises more questions than it answers, but that’s no bad thing…
All up, Under Enemy Colors is the perfect mix of character- and action-driven entertainment, with a heady dose of history and humanity thrown in for good measure. It will appeal to those who love historical fiction or seafaring adventures or just want to get lost in a good old-fashioned action story.