While many readers are familiar with Patrick O’Brian and his tales of adventure on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, told in his Aubrey and Maturin series, there is an armada of less-well-known writers whose fiction set in the days of sail is equally realistic and thrilling. One of my current favorites is Richard Woodman, who writes the Nathaniel Drinkwater series. The series begins with An Eye of the Fleet, but I find the second book, A King’s Cutter, an equally good starting point for the series.
The appeal of Woodman’s series is both in the setting and characters. Woodman has a firm command of naval history and his descriptions of shipboard life and the mechanics of sailing a large vessel all ring true. The battle scenes, while not overly graphic, do not ignore the terrible casualties and the precariousness of life in these actions. From a historical perspective, Woodman does an excellent job of portraying the political struggles and infighting that affected, often if negative ways, the lives and careers of those in the British Navy. There is also an element of espionage in the stories as Woodman explores the intelligence battles between the British and the French during the 1790s to the early 1800s.
Woodman’s main character, Nathaniel Drinkwater, offers an interesting study to readers. Coming from a modest background, Drinkwater served in the British fleet during the American Revolution, but despite his work there never received the promotions due him. Woodman makes clear the ease with which a promised honor can slip away when your patron dies or ends up in political disgrace. Drinkwater has the misfortune to have had both happen. Nonetheless, he manages to eke out a living serving on various ships and finally makes his way onto the cutter Kestrel, which is involved in clandestine operations on the French coast. Torn between his affection for his wife and family and his love of the sea, Drinkwater comes across as a fully-realized character, and his honesty and good nature make him an attractive lead. Time spent in his company is time well spent.
Check the WRL catalog for A King’s Cutter