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Britannia's Shark: The Dawlish Chronicles: April - September 1881 - Antoine Vanner

Britannia’s Shark is the third published naval fiction book by Antoine, following the exploits of the 19th century Royal Navy captain Nicholas Dawlish. The books can each be read separately and there is adequate contextual material to fill in any gaps the reader might have.


Dawlish’s career is characterised by a series of secretive operations to further British interests, well outside the publicly visible face of the Navy. He is one of the servicemen of that age who were willing to experiment with a wide range of emerging technologies, which together were rapidly transforming sea travel and sea warfare from the sailing ships of Nelson’s time to the ironclads of the First World War. Indeed, other than ship-based aircraft, all of the ingredients of modern naval warfare were well formed during Dawlish’s lifetime.


The main emerging technology of this story is the submarine. Antoine vividly captures the claustrophobic horror induced in a man who has been used to open horizons and fresh air, when faced with the constricting darkness, clutter, and polluted atmosphere encountered in this very early prototype. Only total commitment to his calling, and complete acceptance of the necessity of his actions, could overcome Dawlish’s visceral rejection of his situation. The mixed reception of the submarine as a weapon is clear – recognition of its military value alongside repugnance at connotations of cowardice and deceit.


I enjoyed this story considerably more than its predecessor. For one thing there was a much richer, and (for me at least) a much more interesting blend of politics and cultural dynamics alongside the ship and land based fighting. For another, Dawlish’s wife Florence reappears in a crucial role throughout this book, whereas she was relegated to a very minor scene in Britannia’s Reach. Florence is a fine character, and a splendid companion for Nicholas, so it was very pleasing to see her courageously facing danger alongside him.


The political backdrop is also fascinating, as Dawlish is forced to deal with several different factions, all competing for influence and technological advantage. British, Irish, American and Caribbean interests intersect in the story, providing a shifting ground of ambitions and frailties on both national and personal scales. Often in the story – as so often must happen in real service life – respect and friendship cut across the lines drawn by governments.


On a technical level, the book has not been quite so thoroughly edited and proofread as previous volumes, but the typographic slips are still few and far between.


In short, a fine addition to the life story of Nicholas Dawlish, and the extra human and political dimensions explored here push this one up to 5* for me. I shall be looking forward to the next in the series as and when it appears.