A Treacherous Coast

Written by David Donachie
Review by Tom Williams

Our hero, John Pearce, is in the tradition of Sharpe and many other 19th-century military heroes: he has risen from the ranks by dint of obvious heroism, but he has little time for his superiors, and they have little time for him. He joined the Navy as a pressed man and is now a lieutenant on board one of the vessels blockading the Italian coast as the Directory invades Italy. Yes, Napoleon has yet to dominate French politics, and we’re already thirteen volumes in. This is set to be a long series. The opening chapter provides a detailed historical background, though tighter editing may have improved it. We are also given some background on the complex feuds in Pearce’s back story, but even Pearce admits that he no longer knows exactly why some people are so determined to see him done down, so I think a new reader will struggle to follow this detail.

Fortunately, we soon abandon the background exposition and get on with the business of killing Frenchmen. It is once Donachie takes us into the thick of the action that his style comes alive, and it is clear why fans keep coming back for more. Gun emplacements are blown up, merchant convoys are captured, and shore parties are ambushed. Historical figures (Nelson pops up quite a lot) appear alongside our hero, and the action carries you along quite easily. The breaks in maritime adventuring when Pearce tries to deal with the demons from his past are not so successful if you are unfamiliar with the previous volumes, and the romantic interest does not fare well out of that context.

Overall, this is not the place to start with John Pearce. The books have a lot to offer those who enjoy a rollicking nautical adventure, but readers would be better starting twelve volumes earlier.