McCullough takes a Roman holiday and returns to more familiar territory—her native Australia—to tell the tale of an unjustly convicted man transported to the penal colony of Botany Bay.
Political unrest in the American colonies causes an economic pinch in the English port of Bristol, although the subsequent War of Independence will mean prosperity for a skilled gunsmith like Richard Morgan. But when the war ends in 1776, he's out of work. Beset by personal tragedy (he’s now a widower whose beloved only son has been mysteriously murdered), Morgan struggles to survive for the next several years. A vicious, preening little fop hires him to help run a distillery, but Morgan soon figures out that the man is cheating the Crown out of a small fortune in excise tax on liquor—and he turns him in to the mostly indifferent authorities. Not surprisingly, Morgan is double-crossed, and his rigged trial goes badly. Clapped in irons, then sent to the infamous prison ships anchored in the Thames, Morgan is left to rot among the living dead. He survives by his wits, though, when many others perish before they reach Australia, their much-feared destination. There, Morgan thrives, proving his mettle as an artisan and skilled laborer, earning his freedom and finding love and happiness once more. Quite a story, and painstakingly researched, with a grand narrative sweep that only occasionally bogs down in period trivia. This prolific author has a Dickensian love of distinctive supporting characters and (mostly comprehensible) dialect, which lends inimitable flavor and a sense of historical truth to her complex narrative. Richard Morgan himself is almost too good to be true: utterly blameless and rather bland. But no matter. McCullough knows how to entertain, offering an erotic dalliance here and a tasteful flogging there.
Bracing stuff. Like the Victorian novelists she emulates, McCullough (Caesar, 1997, etc.) can simultaneously instruct and inspire—and wring a tear or two.