In author Simmons’ debut novel, Solan Atlas, a 16-year-old prince of an unnamed island kingdom near Europe, sets out alone in his boat to experience the sights and sounds of France.
It is the late 18th century, and Solan expects his adventure to be something like the grand tour of the continent that wealthy Europeans embarked on during the Romantic period. He sets out alone. Ill prepared for the journey, he soon finds himself battling the elements. When he spots a galleon on the horizon, he thinks he’s saved, but Balfour, the ship’s captain, turns out to be a scoundrel. After treating Solan to tea and redirecting him toward the French coast, Balfour then blasts Solan’s boat with cannon fire. The young prince survives but ends up going through further misadventures on land, including being flogged and narrowly surviving a horrible accident. Eventually, he makes friends who come to his aid and is given protection and an education by the powerful Duchess of Cumberland. He then sets sail again, this time as part of Balfour’s crew, in pursuit of the even more devious Capt. Buckholtz. Solan’s adventures and tragic losses continue to amass as his story becomes further entwined with that of Balfour, his crew and his daughter Elsea until they reach eventual safety. Simmons’ novel recalls the picaresque adventure novels of the 18th century and is written in a similar style. While this approach may evoke the novel’s precursors, it can also read as old-fashioned. The main character is likable but frustratingly opaque. In a story with the wit or philosophical bent of Candide or Rasselas, that slightness of character development is fitting, but in a modern novel, most readers are looking for a fully fleshed out protagonist.
A debut novel full of adventure from another time and place.