'290' by Donn Wonnell
Kirkus Star


Volume I: Blockade-Runner
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In this first volume of a planned trilogy, a Southern businesswoman puts her ships to use as privateer blockade runners in the early days of the American Civil War.

In early 1861, Joanna Davis runs Davis & Grey, a successful trading company in Richmond, Virginia. Her main partner is her younger cousin, Trent Grey, but they’ve lately taken on an additional, limited partner, Robert Hamilton—a black Bahamian who was educated in England and has experience as a merchant-ship captain. Though she’s no abolitionist, Davis is a no-nonsense capitalist who “disliked economic inefficiency more than she disliked black people.” Trent, meanwhile, is anti-slavery but pro–states’ rights. In April, when rebels shell Fort Sumter, it’s clear that war is imminent, but the South has no navy. The Confederate government says that it will issue letters of marque for privateers to attack Yankee shipping. Trent convinces Davis to convert one of their two paddle-wheelers into a privateer—not for glory but for profit. Trent has spent time at sea, but he still has much to learn. His first effort is lucky, and he bags a prize; his second is less fortunate, as he loses his ship and his crew—and nearly his life. After he recovers from his injuries, he tries again, this time under Hamilton’s tutelage. His success on this voyage sets the stage for an expansion of their efforts, and for the next volume in the series. Debut author Wonnell has produced a wonderfully compelling story about a seldom-seen aspect of the Civil War: its naval battles. His research is impeccable and his characters, distinct and well-drawn. The scenes are marvels of historical detail (“These, he deduced, were smaller-gauge weapons, perhaps portable field artillery pieces of the kind they called Napoleons”) and period-true dialogue. But this is not a run-of-the-mill Civil War yarn; as the South creates a navy out of nothing, the effort is saturated with intrigue. Hidden motives and political machinations surface and submerge as various characters jostle for position. This is historical fiction at its best—a first-rate tale that wonderfully captures an era and its people.

A superb historical novel that’s not just for Civil War buffs.

Publisher: Dog Ear Publisher
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2015


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