The French Prize

Written by James L. Nelson
Review by Kevin Montgomery

A 19-year-old American captain sails his merchant vessel for Barbados in 1797. At that time America was not at war with France, but England was. That’s important. A French vessel, better gunned, better manned, and better sailed, attacks the young captain’s ship. Miraculously, the American vessel survives, but it’s not over yet.

The second half of this novel is filled with action. The ending is very satisfying, but you, the reader, will have to endure some difficult scenes in order to get there. There’s a great deal of back story – in fact, one after another, and multiple flashbacks. There’s even back story within flashbacks. The author describes the family background of all the major characters, presumably because that’s important to the plot, and there is, indeed, much emphasis on personalities, even among the crew of the French ship, but it strains the reader to follow the story in the beginning.

There’s the obligatory storm at sea, with its attendant descriptions of the black sky and the gray sea and the waves. Some semblance of character development occurs as the dandy passenger struggles to help secure a gun in a dangerous wind. It would have been better had the author employed that action-oriented technique more often instead of telling the reader the personality traits of the actors, as in “aloofness was not his nature” or he “harbored a natural defensiveness,” or “he was a man who commanded attention.”

In fairness to the author, there are many snippets of excellent writing. “Up, up into the wind, Abigale turned.” “The ship carried the officer right into the path of the bullet.” There are descriptions of three-dimensional space and movement aboard a ship in battle. If you can make it through the back story and the author-injected personality descriptions, you’ll find it a spectacular swashbuckler.