Award-winning historian Haley (Captive Paradise, 2014, etc.) turns to fiction, setting sail with Midshipman Bliven Putnam as the young U.S. Navy confronts Barbary Coast pirates.
The page-turning action gets underway with 14-year-old Bliven aboard the schooner Enterprise in the Mediterranean. The American Navy intends to suppress pirates raiding from Tangier, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. There’s plenty of "iron men in wooden ships" action aboard the Enterprise and, later, the Constitution, but there’s also an intriguing interlude with Bliven home in Litchfield, Connecticut. Naval service circa 1800 was haphazard and part-time, dependent on funding from a fractious Congress. Officers were often furloughed at half-pay to await a new assignment. Bliven works for his farmer father, meets law student John Calhoun, and courts neighbor Clarity Marsh, which provides insight into Congregationalist mores. There's more scene-setting and historical background here than passionate romance or action, but there are informative asides on the institution of slavery, farming, alcohol, and social class. Bliven’s soon recalled to a plum assignment aboard the USS Constitution , where he’ll earn a commodore’s favor and quick promotion. Haley’s deck-by-deck tour of the legendary frigate is fascinating. More evidence of his solid research comes with insights into how temperature and humidity effect a sailing ship’s rigging. For example, a ship rigged in Boston’s frigid cold will need dramatic rigging readjustment after sailing into warm waters. Bliven meets the engaging and intellectual Cutbush, the Constitution’s surgeon, visits Gibraltar and Sicily, and participates in a sneak land attack on Tripoli. Characters like South Carolinian and fellow midshipman Sam Bandy expand young Bliven’s worldview, and the real-life Commodore Preble, to whom Bliven is appointed adjutant, provides a window into the duplicitous diplomacy, military and civilian, that hamstrings effective foreign policy.
With O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey having made his last voyage, this early-19th-century sailing series promises to be a worthy successor.