A Fine Retribution by Dewey Lambdin—the reigning master of maritime fiction—continues the adventures of Alan Lewrie, Royal Navy, from his days as a midshipman to captain of his own ship and, though on somewhat dubious grounds, a baronetcy in the 23rd book in the Alan Lewrie series.
When an author is at the 23rd book in a long-running series, sometimes the weight of the full cast of characters can pull down the plotting. There are so many people to spend time with and so many careers to check in with that grafting all that onto the next step in the long career of Naval Captain Alan Lewrie makes the first half of this book almost sink under the load. Happily, the second half of the book sweeps in like a cleansing wave and keeps the reader afloat with the kind of naval action that fans of the series enjoy.
The opening pages of the book provide a clue to the vast amount of detail in the story. Included are diagrams of a full-rigged ship, the points of sail of a compass, and a map of the seas surrounding the peninsula of Italy and Sicily.
I spent six weeks aboard the U.S.C.G. Barque Eagle one summer many years ago, and I appreciated the initial detail, anticipating being reacquainted with life at sea. (Though I’ll note that while author Dewey Lambdin includes all the sails, not included on the diagram are the lines connected to each sail, which I also had to memorize as a Coast Guard cadet. I’m sure including them all would have been too confusing to most readers.)
A Fine Retribution begins as Lewrie sails his limping but triumphant ship, the HMS Sapphire, to home port in England. It should be the best moment of his career, but things go awry almost immediately. First, the mainmast cannot be repaired, leaving Lewrie and his faithful crew without a ship. That kicks off the landlubber section of the tale, centered mainly in London, as Lewrie frets about whether his career is over.
There are some compensations for him, however. First, the prize money from his last victory makes him a rich man. Then, there is the lovely and intelligent Jessica Chenery, the sister of one of his Midshipman. Lewrie’s been corresponding with her since a brief meeting before the last adventure, and it seems romance is in the air now.
Readers of the entire series will no doubt get more from this section of the book, as Lewrie catches up on the lives of many characters from previous books, including all three of his children and many of his naval comrades. The first half is also a good indication of the tone of Lambdin’s series: a detail-rich recreation of its time, from the ships to the homes of London to how to furnish the homes of London to how British ships in the Napoleonic-era might create a landing craft. There’s even a side trip into the art world, as Jessica Chenery is a talented painter.
A reader looking for an intensely emotional book will not find it here. A reader looking for a likable and relatable hero will be more than satisfied with Lewrie and his cast. I suspect, given the descriptions of the earlier books, that it’s best I “met” Lewrie at this stage of his career where he’s learned a bit of wisdom and put aside (at least for now) his careless ways, realizing how they affect the people around him.
And, of course, there’s the second half of the tale in which A Fine Retribution lives up to its subtitle as a naval adventure. This time, Lewrie is tasked with using his initiative to captain not just a new ship but command two other supply ships as well. He also must create a landing craft and somehow find and train soldiers to join his Marines in making lightning-quick landings in French-controlled Italy to harass the French troops stationed there.
Again, the attention to detail is fascinating. Lewrie makes sure his group has proper training in the stealth landings, from loading the landing craft at sea to unloading its soldiers at the beach. It’s a Napoleonic-era version of the D-Day landings, though on a much smaller scale.
In between, there’s also a fantastic sequence as Lewrie takes his new ship out for the first time and she begins moving under full sail:
The Isle of Wight loomed up to starboard, and Bembridge and Foreland came abeam; with fishing smacks and dredgers working close to shore, well alee of the many out-bound ships. As the log showed nine knots, Vigilance met the first chops of the Channel, her bluff bows and forefoot smashing into them, parting them, and riding over them with an implacable forward drive, flinging the first sprays of seawater up to the beakhead rails and wetting the feet of the inner, outer, and the flying jibs, and pattering salt rain on the forecastle that made idle ship’s boys screech and caper about, forcing them further aft.
We only had one day aboard the Eagle when she was flying like this on wind-power alone, and it was indeed as glorious as Lambdin describes. If you’re ever wondering what a sailing ship of this size feels like on the ocean, it would be hard to do better than this description:
Vigilance came about, her jib-boom and bowsprit sweeping cross a stretch of sea, putting the Undercliff and the light at St. Catherine’s Point on her starboard quarter. With one reef taken in the fore course, she seemed to sag a bit, to slug through the Channel chops with a little less exuberance, and Midshipman Monkton, a lad of twenty, was sent for a fresh cast of the log.
However, if you’re looking for insightful thoughts on war and its destruction, you won’t find them here. This is typical of the description of battle. Exciting and, again, described in clear details, but hardly full of emotion:
Eight howitzers bellowed, lurching back, in an irregular stutter, and two and a half seconds later, the pre-cut fuses exploded the shells, big, ugly black bursts barely fifty feet above the first three enemy guns, and it was chaos! Wounded horses screamed, gunners were scythed off the horses and waggons, and the third crashed into the second. Neat order was lost as caissons and limbers went one way, panicked gun teams and guns on their carriages went another, running off the road, and overturning as they met ditches and rocks jutting from the hillside.
Lewrie seems untouched at the destruction of the French troops by his howitzer team and his ship’s guns, though perhaps that’s realistic while during a battle. But he also has no qualms about the earlier destruction of a watchtower that has stood since Norman times. He’s very much a man who lives in the moment, though he’s beginning to sense some of the mistakes in his life and adjust his behavior accordingly.
The climax of this book is a rousing battle—which includes the above snippet—that made the last few chapters of the book fly by, living up to its subtitle of “naval adventure.” A salute to Lambdin and Lewrie for that.
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Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog at Wired and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.