A young British medic is recruited for a dangerous secret mission during the Napoleonic Wars.
Jean-Baptiste Swift, known to his mates as “Jack,” has served in the British Navy for more than two years aboard the Victory, a warship commanded by the venerable Adm. Nelson. Jack is a “loblolly,” an assistant to the ship’s surgeon, a “handsome, brooding youth with the dark eyes and sharp wits,” dedicated to mastering medical science. He acquits himself well during the Battle of Trafalgar, too humble to admit his bravery, though he’s stung by the death of Adm. Nelson and haunted by nightmares in the battle’s aftermath. While attending to wounded French soldiers, he discovers intel regarding the movement of the French fleet which he promptly communicates to his superiors. When those superiors learn that Jack is fluent in French, he’s disguised as an officer and tasked with procuring even more information from their loose-lipped adversaries. Later, higher-ups assign Jack an even grander mission. He’s to disguise himself as a French dragoon—he’ll be given a crash course in French military matters and culture —so he can track down Adm. Villeneuve, Nelson’s “noble adversary,” in order to infer from his movements Napoleon’s plans. Debut author Stulc cleverly endows Jack with an unusual backstory that makes him peculiarly well suited to this brand of espionage: He was born in Gascony to a French mother and an English father and, once orphaned, was sent to live in England at the age of 7 by his grandmother in order to escape the violent excesses of the Terror. The author’s command of the historical period is extraordinary, including medical and military matters, not surprising since he served as a surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Stulc keeps the action-packed plot moving at a speedy pace. His prose can be overwrought, however; one chapter is titled “Death’s Grim Leer.” Still, this is an intelligently conceived story, both historically astute and captivating.
A gripping adventure wrapped in an edifying history lesson.