Polevoi’s debut period piece uncoils intersecting narratives about 17th-century political intrigue, naval warfare and love in the West Indies.
Sir Henry Morgan, a legendary privateer, is elevated to the position of Royal Governor of Jamaica. Apoplectic with resentment over the indignities heaped upon him by his King, Morgan conspires to consolidate control over the lucrative but illicit privateering trade by assembling a military force that answers only to him. He sends Captain Michael Scot to Darien country, a remote jungle territory in Panama ruled by Indians but recently overtaken by Spaniards because of its reported abundance of gold. Morgan’s hope is that the glory and financial windfall of the expedition will aggrandize his political clout. Meanwhile, he enlists the help of Jamaica’s Chief Justice Roger Dawkins to parry with his political adversary, the formidable Sir John Black. Dawkins quickly becomes embroiled in a shadowy world of misdirection, subterfuge and murder. To further muddy already turbid waters, Dawkins is courted by wealthy sugar plantation heiress Lily Barton, whose interest in him is both romantically and politically motivated. Dawkins, however, ends up sexually entangled with Barton’s most trusted slave. All these intertwined narratives lead to an explosive and unpredictable skein of conclusions. Polevoi provides stirring depictions of naval combat and a thoughtful meditation on the complexities of martial honor. The book is painstakingly researched and it vividly portays the historical and cultural milieu crucial to its telling. However, the arresting story is too often weighed down with gratuitously baroque prose and excursions into distracting psychoanalysis of its characters. Rather than allow the reader to draw his own inferences, Polevoi insists on coupling every moment of narrative significance with his own protracted commentary. An edit for brevity would be useful. Nevertheless, the story itself is a compelling one and the writing is sometimes nimbly and inventively descriptive. Impressive reflections on the relations between men and women and the tempestuous issue of slavery manage to be insightful without descending into the didactic.
A dense, engrossing read for those who love to unravel the gossamer threads of a political mystery.