Two young Americans find adventure and intrigue in the slavery era.
Otts (The Sword of the Prophet, 2009) carries the reader a century and a half back in time to the burgeoning of bad blood between North and South. The year is 1857, and South Carolina is embroiled in sedition. Freed slave John Harvey has spent years working in silence for the abolitionist cause as he accompanies his employer’s son, Martin McCrary, on a tour of New Orleans, Havana, and other points south. Unknown to McCrary, “a young man who had done more reading than sporting in a life,” the secretive Harvey is actually in the employ of both McCrary’s abolitionist maternal grandfather, the Rev. Matthew Coulter, now exiled to the Carolina mountains, and his financier, Sir Ian McDonald, a progressive Liverpool merchant. But McCrary does not live long in ignorance. After the young men take turns saving each other’s lives—Harvey protects McCrary on the dangerous streets of Havana before McCrary defends the shipwrecked Harvey from circling sharks—Harvey lets his companion in on a secret that bonds them for life. The revelation also shatters McCrary’s callow image of the world. Vowing to work together to end the scourge of slavery, the two become double agents, encountering dangers around every corner. Their investigations lead them to “a grand conspiracy to dismantle the United States of America, by encouraging Secession in the Southern states.” This is very much a series-establishing book, and readers who hope to see the story tidied up by the final page will instead be surprised to encounter traces of a larger saga still unfolding. This series promises to be an exhilarating one. Otts can write genuinely gripping action scenes with surprisingly well-chosen language (note, for example, the wise but unusual use of “punch” when “Harvey leapt from the shadows, using his left hand to punch the stiletto between the Spaniard’s ribs”). There are dozens of such well-limned scenes here, along with two-faced characters aplenty and a strong moral center to both young heroes that makes for an assured and diverting read.
Sparkling action scenes punctuate the first in a series of tales about the run-up to the Civil War.