At Drake’s Command, by David Wesley Hill, is a god-send to readers just embarking on maritime historical fiction or those boggled by Patrick O’Brian’s rich nautical vocabulary.
By making the narrator of his novel the young son of an innkeeper, innocent of all matters regarding the sea and learning at a leisurely pace, the reader is brought comfortably into the world of Elizabethan seamanship without the constant need of a diagram or a specialized dictionary. And there is quite sufficient action and period detail in this book to satisfy any reader who is not already a scholar of seafaring.
Mr. Hill is a writer of science fiction, for which he has won many awards. The particular virtue of the science fiction writer is his ability to create, down to the minutest detail, a world that exists only in his own imagination and has no external referents. This ability is brought to the subject of Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. For young readers especially such attention to detail will be welcome. Readers knowledgeable in the period and in seafaring may become impatient with this painstaking approach. But there is good stuff here.
While following the records of Drake’s voyage, Hill is not at all averse to having his fictional young hero venture off on entertainingly imaginative yet thoroughly plausible adventures on his own.
And, once the author achieves comfort in this genre, he shows himself a writer of considerable skill and grace. If I have a complaint it’s the occasional lapse into anachronisms.
Finding a suitable language for characters in the past is one of the most delicate concerns of the historical novelist. In this Hill does reasonably well, keeping the speech easy for the modern reader yet with a sense of suitable distance. But when the central character utters the words, “I also relied on the tenderness of strangers,” he sounds startlingly like Blanche DuBois.
There are similar arresting instances. While such literary allusions might be amusing in science fiction, in historical novels, when they are far out of period they call attention to themselves in a way that yanks the reader out of the period the author should always be at pains to sustain.
Hill shows considerable interest in cookery, making the young hero’s background in an inn all the more plausible. But in describing some delectable Portuguese dishes the influence seems more 21 century haute cuisine than the healthful “four humours” that guided 16th century European cooks. While this may seem quibbling, readers of historical novels these days can be sticklers for period authenticity.
Apart from these minor issues, the tone of At Drake’s Command is highly refreshing. While Hill indulges in some colorful and heretical cussing for his mariners, his moral compass never fails, placing this work beside Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for readability and clean adventure.
This volume does hardly more than begin the great voyage Drake achieved, so there will be further travels with Peregrine James, the youthful innkeeper’s son turned seafarer. Though it has taken perhaps an eighth of the book for the author to find his “sea legs” as a writer of maritime historical fiction, once he gains his stride he bowls along smartly and we can expect much delightful reading as the series sails onward.