The Distant Ocean
Reviewed by George Jepson
“. . . splendid, supremely gripping chronicles of Nelson’s navy. ”
PHILIP K. Allan’s passion for ships and the sea–and in particular the British Royal Navyunder sail – began as a lad when he crackedopen one of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Horn-blower novels. Two years ago, this zeal was emblazoned in print,with the publication ofThe Captain’s Nephew by Penmore Press, launching Allan’s Alexander Clay series, which now numbersfive naval adventures with the release of The Distant Ocean. The Clay novels, which are set against the story-rich French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, move swiftly along like a frigate under fullsails in a stiff sea breeze. The Distant Ocean finds Captain Clay traveling by coach from Londonto Weymouth on England’s Channelcoast with Earl Spencer, First Lord ofthe Admiralty, for an audience with His Majesty King George III. The sovereign is eager to learn first-hand about the recent Battle of the Nile in which Clay participated aboard his frigate Titan. Attacks by the French men-of-war on British East India Company ships in the Indian Ocean are also a concern for the King. In honor of Clay’s service at Aboukir Bay, His Majesty orders “the finest sword the Worshipful Company of Cutlers can produce” as a gift to the young officer, adding, “I shall expect you to carry it with you into your next battle.” Within months, the King’s admonition is realized when Clay and Titan sail for the Indian Ocean by way of the African coast, in company with a squadron under Commodore George Montegue. It is at this point that Allan’s skilled storytelling comes to the fore, setting events in motion that will put humanity to the test, challenge loyalty, and pit men against the elements in a life-and-death struggle. Accompanying Titan and Montegue’s frigate, Black Prince, are the sloop Rush, commanded by Clay’s particular friend John Sutton, and the sloop Echo, under Nicholas Windham. Sending these men into treacherous seas together is clever storytelling. Montegue is Windham’s patron, responsible for his early step to master and commander. Windham harbors a hatred for Clay and Suttondating back to the death of his uncle, Captain Percy Follett. And Clayis vexed by what he knows aboutboth fellow officers. No good cancome of this witches’ brew of flawed mortals. After squiring a convoy of Guineamen down the African coast, Titan arrives in Cape Town andreunites with the squadron, while resupplying and preparing to hunt for the three large French frigates preying on John Company vessels. Perilous seas and betrayal lie ahead, as Montegue’s squadron plunges into the Indian Ocean, with the probability that not all will survive the mission. Allan narrates his rousing yarn from the keel to the quarterdeck through the voices, actions, and the remarkable experiences of those who lived and died within the “wooden world.” Clay and Sutton, along with lower deck hands like former slave Able Sedgwick, comefully alive through Allan’s crisp prose. The Alexander Clay novels are splendid, supremely gripping chronicles of Nelson’s navy.