Review 2 April 2013 by “Seaweed”

Britannia’s Wolf by Antoine Vanner

`We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do…
`We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!
`We’ve fought the Bear before… and while we’re Britons true,
`The Russians shall not have Constantinople…’

(Chorus to Macdermott’s War Song, GW Hunt, 1878)

The background to this novel is the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-8, of which I suspect most British people know little, perhaps not even that this where we got the word `Jingoism’. Vanner has clearly studied it in great depth, and appears to have the political and strategic background off pat. Briefly, Russia, on a pretext of saving her co-religionists in Bulgaria from Moslem atrocity and tyranny, attacked Turkey and pressed on in order to put the Ottoman Empire out of business once for all by taking Istanbul. It had tried and failed to do in the 1850s, but Britain and France decided that a Russia with unfettered access to the Mediterranean could not be tolerated, still less perhaps the chaos that would result from the resulting power vacuum in the Middle East.

Vanner’s hero, Commander Nicholas Dawlish RN, has been sent to Turkey to take charge of naval matters in the eastern end of the Black Sea and so help to frustrate Russia’s advance. Vanner has the technology weighed off, too, in his description of the warships of the time and their armament, and the action cracks along at a rapid pace, pulling the reader into such a credible narrative that one almost forgets this is fiction. The motivation of the British Government is thus to support Turkey covertly so as to avoid having to intervene overtly. Meanwhile both sides vie with each other in a litany of abominable atrocity against the adherents of the opposite religion, in a tit-for-tat that gets ever more extreme and brings incalculable suffering to non-combatants across the entire sphere of action. Dawlish has to square his conscience on this one because his duty to Britain requires him to fight for a morally indefensible regime. Johnny Turk was of course still in the massacre business in the 1920s.

I have only two quibbles – Vanner sometimes slips up on matters of seamanship and naval usage: for instance `battle stations’ (p.205) is both an Americanism and an anachronism; the Press (p.130) was aimed at seamen, not useless landsmen (although some inevitably were pulled in due to excess of zeal); and he clearly does not have a complete grasp of astro-navigation. My other problem is the `love interest’ which failed to grip me although again Vanner has a sure touch for the social and class attitudes of the time. But this tale would make a cracking film, and films won’t sell without women, so maybe Florence and her boss Lady Agatha will later earn their keep, even though on film they may have to get their corsets off.

Personal curiosity really, but I’d like to know just a bit more about the author such as how come he has experience of mangrove swamps and so forth.

We are told that this book is just the first of what will be a series about Dawlish’s adventures. I found the writing sometimes just a little stiff outside the action passages but I’m sure this can be worked on. Whether Dawlish will one day rank with Hornblower and Aubrey – well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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