BRITANNIA’S SPARTAN, by Antoine Vanner
This, the fourth in the enthralling Dawlish series, fulfills all the promise of the previous books, then delivers even more.
Beginning with a flashback to an early and character-defining episode in Dawlish’s naval career – one that, incidentally, is the best description of a desperate and doomed attack on a coastal fort I have ever read – the story reaches forward to Dawlish’s latest assignment. This, the collection of signatures on diplomatic papers from the weak Korean emperor, seems simple enough. For Dawlish, the aim and pleasure of the job is a test run of his crack new command, the ironclad Leonidas.
The voyage to Hong Kong goes very satisfactorily indeed, but from then on matters deteriorate very quickly. The anchorage in Korea is run by corrupt Europeans under the sway of a territory-hungry Japanese breakaway society, and the journey to Seoul is marked by scenes of appalling treatment of the local peasants. Unsurprisingly, Seoul turns out to be the arena of a brutal civil rebellion. Street battles follow, as Dawlish struggles not only to save his little band of gallant men, but to rescue the empress as well. Firstrate battleships of competing Japanese and Chinese forces arrive, along with menacing torpedo boats, and then the whole is enveloped in the destructive whirl of a typhoon – and that is only the first half of this page-turner of a book.
Vanner is a master of the descriptive phrase, whether portraying battles on land at sea in every shocking detail, or uncovering the thorny tangle of dealing with utterly foreign peoples. Some of his characters, whether British, Chinese, Korean or Japanese, fairly jump off the page. The British-trained Japanese navigator, Takenada, is particularly well-drawn, and his role in the unexpected and dramatic denouement is very satisfying indeed.
While there are scenes that are not for the faint of heart, this book is recommended to all readers. It is not necessary to have read the previous books in order to enjoy Britannia’s Spartan, but I predict that those who are new to Vanner’s work won’t take long to turn to the others in the Dawlish series.