Within the frame of a few events concerned with Walter Raleigh's tragic last voyage to South America, the author has established -- through fictional narrator Captain Golding -- a gray, cynical view of a grand design. While Raleigh remains behind with a few ships battered by a recent mutinous uprising, an expedition led by Captain Keymis and Raleigh's son Wat heads for the interior of ""Guiana."" But the only gold ripples through the mountainous ambition and fears of Raleigh or the fevered memory of Keymis. And the pursuit of riches and redemption brings murders, cruelties, the death of Wat, a settlement's devastation and madness in a hostile terrain. As the survivors straggle back to England Raleigh is betrayed by Golding, who, after dangers needlessly undergone, is appropriately skeptical about promises from those in high places oblivious to the lives of those they have used. The author, in this first novel, sustains the period tone, a balance of fact and fiction with the weight of doomed enterprise.