Historical Novel Society
HNR Issue 87 (February 2019)
Review by Thomas j. Howley
In 1850, a good deal of the population of Europe and North America would love to get to the gold rush boom town of San Francisco to seek their fortune. However, the vast distances involved, and the state of transportation technology at the time, make the trip inordinately difficult and expensive. The California Run is the exciting story of the two stately clipper ships, “the greyhounds of the sea,” racing to see which will reach San Francisco from New York City first.
The Achilles is brand new with an international crew of “pack rats” who sign on just to get to the gold fields, unfortunates who have been shanghaied by “crimpers,” including a group of Swedes who have just arrived in America, volatile officers, and exotic female passengers. Sapphire is an experienced ship financed by an unscrupulous tycoon. The first to arrive will gain incredible profits and a $50,000 prize for her owner. However, a saboteur has been embedded on the Achilles to assure she loses. The book focuses on the daunting nautical and personal dynamics aboard the Achilles.
I’ve no doubt the attentive reader will qualify as at least an apprentice seaman or navigator on a sailing ship after finishing this masterful novel. The nautical lore imparted is impressive and complements the intrigue, betrayal, violence, romance and humor superbly. There is murder and mayhem and a mysterious spy orchestrating it all within the wooden confines of a sleek sailing ship. A fascinating detail is that the ship’s lookout is 175 feet above the waterline, and most of the crew works topsides. As the author no doubt intended, the reader gets caught up in the excitement as the Achilles’ speed becomes increasingly swifter through astute seamanship by an unlikely source. A thrilling and satisfying adventure which I happily recommend.