Suspense novelist Cline (Whisper the Guns, not reviewed, etc.) switches genres for a tidy, well-grounded historical, the first in a projected trilogy, about a smuggling ring in tax-smarting 18th-century England.
Jack Frake, the independent-minded ten-year-old son of impoverished parents who are “locally notorious” in coastal Cornwall, figures as the hero in this coming-of-age tale. Jack's kindly mentor, an educated rector, has taken up the boy’s instruction out of charity. But the rector is killed during an aborted attempt to spirit Jack into slavery. Already surging with hatred of the corruption and inequity he has seen British officials perpetuate, the boy eagerly joins a savvy smuggling operation led by Augustus Skelly, “a kind of inverse Robin Hood who robbed the Customs and excise and split the profits between himself and the poor.” Cline methodically pursues two storylines that inevitably dovetail without undue suspense or excitement. Jack eludes his evil new stepfather Leith (his mother, the only female character of note, is portrayed as nothing but a drunk and a whore), while Skelly and his literary right-hand man, who goes by the alias Methuselah Redmagne, are stalked Javert-like by the wily Revenue Service official Henoch Pannell. The author’s interests are clearly historical, and he inserts with academic faithfulness various lessons on English law, European succession, and geography. Literary readers will enjoy Redmagne's instruction of Jack in the development of the English novel (e.g., Swift, Defoe), but Cline's own novel suffers from stifling plotting, leaving little room for surprise or delight. The title refers to the ship that teenaged Jack boards at the close, heading for America and (presumably) the Revolution.
A solid if less than thrilling effort to render a complicated period in English history.