Accessible characters and rich historical detail mark this third in Lackey’s nautical series set in 1840s Maryland. Sonja and Ben Pulaski struggle for ownership of the Raven, a former slave ship and site of a pitched battle to free both its cargo and Sonja, who had been kidnapped and tortured by its prior captain.
The novel will resonate with fans of family sagas. Flashbacks and generational details involving the Pulaskis’ sons Aaron, Isaac and Abraham frame an occasionally overwhelming procession of characters, all sharing murky relationships. Moral and geographical limits are explored as the action crosses over the Maryland/Pennsylvania border marking slavery’s legal boundaries. Old enemies appear as both threat and opportunity: bank manager Sam Briscoe evicts the Pulaskis from their beautiful riverside homestead after marrying the equally treacherous widow of his murdered boss, Lydia Binterfield, but then perversely seems to offer Ben a helping financial boost. The crew of the Raven fleshes out, with old allies such as the colorful Adam Tuttle and new additions such as Cephus, a freeman who sets out to burn the ship but ends up saving it. Lackey does an admirable job in recreating larger-than-life historical personalities, including beloved Chesapeake socialite Mamie Stewart, the family’s new landlady. Interesting surprises arise in each chapter as Sam and Sonja try to heal past damage to their relationship, while coping with the social pressures and economic opportunities offered by their burgeoning mercantile trade business. But Ben’s old alliances and inner moral voice also make the temptation to smuggle slaves to freedom in the North undeniable.
Once underway, the book’s style becomes crisp and well-paced, although somewhat lacking in the narrative arc some literary fans may desire. The historical details of inter-coastal navigation and the increasing political tensions of the era are the strong points.