David Wesley Hill’s novel is the first in a planned series, which follows Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world through the eyes of the young cook and crew-member Peregrine James. We first meet Perry in Plymouth in November 1577, where he is being publicly whipped for a theft he didn’t commit. Determined to make a better life for himself, he talks his way onto the crew of the Pelican, which under the command of Francis Drake is said to be heading off on a trading voyage to Alexandria.
Thrust into the small and intense community aboard ship, Perry assists the Pelican’s uninspired cook Lancelot Garget and tries to carve out a place for himself in this small and tightly-knit community of men. As the Pelican and her companion ships head south, he finds himself learning not only how to feed this raucous company of sailors but also how to be one of them: clambering the rigging, winding the capstan, training with cannons and cutlasses, and handling his shipmates’ delicate egos. It also becomes clear that their destination is not to be Alexandria, but some other place, far beyond the coast of Africa and the Portuguese islands of the Atlantic; perhaps even beyond the bounds of any map Perry has ever seen.
Although I’ve read several novels about this period recently, they’ve all been fairly landlubbery (except Scales of Gold and To Lie with Lions). I haven’t read much maritime historical fiction and most of my knowledge about such matters comes from watching the BBC’s Hornblower series as a teenager. Hill evidently knows his stuff back to front and one of this book’s strengths is the almost tangible evocation of shipboard life: he conjures up the ropes under your hands, the snap of the wind in the sails and the sea-shanties that help the men keep time (I’m pleased that What shall we do with the drunken sailor? got an airing). You come to understand the challenge of provisioning a ship with supplies that won’t go off during the voyage, and how to cook a hot meal for sixty-seven men using a fire-box on the top deck in the open air.
Hill has worked as a chef which gives his descriptions of cookery an added spark of realism: some passages, especially the cook-off between Perry and the Portuguese cook João Longo Prata, made my mouth water. In his foreword he explains how he’s used the surviving documents which record the daily progress of the voyage, and his careful plotting of the route on Google Earth so that he can see exactly what his characters would have encountered on their journey. In short, everything about this novel shows how much care and attention has gone into it, and I’m sure Hill knows so much about Elizabethan seafaring that he could answer any question you might have, no matter how obscure.
The difficulty with having done a lot of research is that it can sometimes be hard to decide what to include and what to leave out. To borrow a culinary turn of phrase, I felt that the book was occasionally over-seasoned: sometimes the research didn’t so much support the plot as dominate it. This was especially the case in the first few chapters, where I felt that the pace would have benefited from slightly more ruthless editing. The decision to use deliberately old-fashioned language and grammar does give the story a kind of antique integrity, but on the other hand it can make the dialogue a little staid. Again this was most marked at the beginning: Beth Winston (whom I liked very much) must be the most articulate prostitute in English literature!
Things got into their stride once the Pelican was on the open sea and we were able to focus on the relationships between the officers and crew, and between Perry and his shipmates. I have particularly vivid mental images of Garget – a gaunt, weaselly little man – and Pascoe Goddy – a good-natured bear of a fellow with very few teeth, and perhaps the odd glint of a golden molar. Drake himself, bluff and gold-bearded, comes across very well: with enough of the common touch to make his men ready to die for him, but enough force of character to make himself feared as well as loved. There were some subtle but very welcome moments of humour, too, such as Perry’s efforts to translate for John Winter the unedifying opinions of a captured Portuguese sailor (‘He appears to be expressing a desire to engage in conjugal relations with your mother‘). And what must we make of the name of that Portuguese cook, João Longo Prata, which, translated into English becomes the most famous pirate of them all: a private joke, perhaps?
Earlier on I mentioned Hornblower, and At Drake’s Command has much in common with that series: notably an earnest and naive hero, determined to live by his principles. In Perry’s case that means sticking to the advice given to him by Hal Audley on his departure from Plymouth (‘If you would do it, do it well!‘), in the face of peril, the Portuguese and the enmity of Lancelot Garget. Perry faces his challenges, from sabotaged cooking ingredients to kidnap by an Arab sheikh, with equal pluckiness and integrity and, like Hornblower, manages to emerge from every adventure with his qualities and good character intact. As I don’t want to veer too far into spoilers, I will only say that this made the events of the final pages feel slightly implausible: I didn’t believe that so good a judge of character as Drake would dismiss the ample evidence of his own eyes in this way; and the punishment seemed much too severe for a vaguely supposed crime. Nevertheless, I understand the importance of finishing with a cliffhanger and, while the end of the previous chapter provided a perfect fade-to-black moment, I enjoyed the piquant final twist of drama. And so we must wait to find out exactly how Perry plans to deal with his latest challenge (I imagine, sadly, that it won’t be the same method adopted by Captain Jack Sparrow when in a similar predicament).
As I’ve said, the language makes this a more challenging read than most, but once you take that in your stride this is an absorbingly faithful reconstruction of what it must have been like to serve on one of the great Elizabethan voyages. If you’re an established fan of maritime historical fiction then I’ve no doubt there’s much here for you to enjoy; and, for those of us who only dabble in the genre now and then, there’s an endearing and resourceful hero, and moments when you suddenly understand how thrilling it must have been, to sail in a time when the land over the horizon genuinely was terra incognita.
I received this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review