Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, naval, Publisher, Putnam, S. Thomas Russell

‘Under Enemy Colors’ by S. Thomas Russell


Fiction – hardcover; Putnam Publishing Group; 368 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, naval, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Star of the Sea’ by Joseph O’Connor


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 410 pages; 2003.

This is quite simply a stunning achievement.

Joseph O’Connor‘s Star of the Sea is a gripping story set on a New York-bound ship filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847. But this is not the usual “Irish potato famine fare” you might expect. It’s a complete reworking, not just of the 19th century disaster that was the famine, but of the naval-based novel and, indeed, the novel in general.

O’Connor’s tome is incredibly detailed and multi-layered. There are stories within stories, each one marking a different place on the social spectrum: the cunning criminal; the downtrodden maid looking to start a new life; an American journalist who records it all; and a victimised landlord and his unhappy wife. The beauty of O’Connor’s magnificent novel is that each of these vastly different characters is inextricably linked in ways that they will never know.

Star of the Sea is a mesmerising tale that will take readers to new, uncharted territory. It is sad, funny, violent, depressing, grim, shameful, shocking and uplifting. O’Connor, the brother of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, weaves a wonderful, clever narrative together, swinging effortlessly between past and present, on board the ship and in Ireland. But it’s the ending which will leave you gasping for more as you suddenly comprehend how all the different strands of the story have come together without you ever realising.

More please.