In this alternate-history adventure, Joe Tournier comes to in a Londres métro station in 1898, so named because Napoleon won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and successfully invaded England, now a French colony. Having no memory of his past, Joe is taken to the hospital by a mysterious stranger and identified as a slave. Joe’s French master claims him and introduces him to a wife he doesn’t remember. When Joe receives a postcard of a Scottish lighthouse in the mail, written in English, a forbidden language, “Come home if you remember,” he believes the lighthouse can explain his identity. Years pass before he can visit the place, and when he does, he’s transported back to the Napoleonic era and its naval warfare.
The sailing chapters, alternately in 1798 and 1807, are well researched and will delight readers whose interest skews towards the Napoleonic Wars. However, I wanted more from the setting than I was given. I wanted to be immersed in French-occupied London, with more than just Napoleon IV’s image on coins, Responsibility Cards that slaves must carry, and being told that people spoke French. I sometimes found it challenging to remember where I was, because the scenic details were light.
The fraught relationship between Joe and brooding ship captain Missouri Kite is sweet and palpable but doesn’t gain traction until the end. I didn’t find their conclusion to be satisfying because Joe’s character is not terribly clear. However, take the criticism with a grain of salt, as Joe struggles to remember who he is for almost the entirety of the novel. How can we know him if he continually changes? Overall, the plot keeps the reader on pace, even if the characters and the setting don’t. It’s still a wild adventure.