A Ship of War

Written by Sean Thomas Russell
Review by Jasmina Svenne

The Terror is at its height. Charles Hayden, captain of HMS Themis, is on the point of setting sail for Le Havre to intercept a French frigate that is harassing British shipping, when new, secret orders arrive. He is to meet a French spy with information that must be conveyed to England at all costs. But ill luck and heartache over his thwarted love for Henrietta Carthew threaten to undermine Hayden’s mission almost before it has begun.

It took me a while to get into this book. The naval jargon is quite technical, though I think I got the gist. It didn’t help that I haven’t read Russell’s first two books and therefore initially, apart from Hayden, Barthes and Ransome, the crew was an indistinguishable list of names to me. But there are some atmospheric set pieces later on. Descriptions of creeping through a fog bristling with enemy ships and braving a storm in a disintegrating ship particularly stick in my memory.

Take, Burn or DestroyRussell is on less certain ground with Georgian etiquette. As someone who has read more than my fair share of obscure 18th-century novels, as well as non-fiction about the period, I’ve never come across a man suing a woman for breach of promise. (The law seems to have existed purely to protect women against slanders that might render them unmarriageable.) Nor would a gentleman declare his feelings without proposing, since that would imply his intentions were dishonourable. If Henrietta has been corresponding with Hayden without being engaged to him, she has already compromised herself.

Recommended mainly for existing fans of the series.