Britannia's Spartan is the fourth in Antoine Vanner's Dawlish series. I have been following these from the beginning and have very much enjoyed the introduction to the world of the Royal Navy of the late nineteenth century.
This was a period of vast technological and social change. At the start of Nicholas Dawlish's fictional life, naval battles were still fought between wooden sailing ships armed with muzzle-loading cannon, of a basic design unchanged since Tudor times. By the time of Britannia's Spartan - the 1880s - he is commanding a steel-hulled ship driven by steam power, with breech-loading guns mounted in sponsons, carrying and being vulnerable to torpedoes. Rudimentary submarines were under development. The only major game-changer in naval warfare which did not appear in the nineteenth century was the aircraft, and these would also make their appearance before Dawlish's death in 1918 (still many books away, I am happy to say).
So, somebody in Dawlish's position had to master an ever-changing series of demands, if he was to continue to progress in his career. Men like Dawlish had been inspired by the careers of Nelson, Pellew, and the like, but the practical business of running a ship had changed radically since their day.
At this time England was, at least nominally, at peace. Ship captains were expected to have the ability to represent both their nation and their monarch as surrogate diplomats, not simply as warriors. However, the reality of service in foreign waters, accompanied by a degree of isolation from superior officers which is hard for us to contemplate, meant that every encounter could potentially be hostile. Some countries held grudges against England, and some factions within a country might attempt a surprise attack to gain some political advantage. There was, quite simply, no way to be sure whether the ship seen coming over the horizon was friend or foe. Dawlish's career, and the lives of his crew, depend constantly on his making the right assessment.
Each Dawlish book so far has focused on a different theatre of action. Britannia's Spartan takes our hero to the Far East, where rivalries and alliances between Korea, China, Japan and Russia have to be understood, and then turned to British advantage. For Dawlish, these cultures are opaque and challenging, as well as stirring up difficult memories of the early years of his naval service. Is he able to identify friend and foe quickly enough to meet the challenges, both on the field of battle and in the political arena?
In earlier books, Dawlish's naval battles, when they are forced on him, have often been in confined spaces such as river valleys, or around coastlines. Here, on the other hand, we are able to witness him working in the open sea. Ship handling, rather than judicious use of the terrain, is the key to success. Dawlish's ship, Leonidas, is technologically ahead of many ships in this part of the world, but not necessarily all of them. The skills of captain and crew must make up for any shortfall.
But sometimes battle has to be declined, and Dawlish must weigh carefully the consequences of both action and inaction. One of the most poignant moments in the book - and perhaps the one best illustrating Dawlish's own development as a ship captain - is when he has to decide not to provide help to a Chinese landing party who have been ambushed. Never reinforce failure is a military maxim used by von Clausewitz, Napoleon and countless others, back into antiquity and forward to the present day - and Dawlish is forced to adhere to the maxim despite the human cost. In the end he is able to redress the balance, but the moment has clearly weighed very heavily on his soul.
Both militarily and politically, Britannia's Spartan is a very strong book. Challenges must be faced at sea, during marine landings, and in ornate houses and palaces of state. It is a different world than the Victorian England that Dawlish has left behind. My only regret is that we meet so little of Florence, Dawlish's wife, who is a splendid character in her own right. Given the geographical setting, this was inevitable, but I still missed her.
All in all, Britannia's Spartan comes strongly recommended by me, whether or not you have read the earlier books in the series. Each is self-contained, and you can start to know Dawlish and his career at any point.
This review was originally written for The Review (http://thereview2014.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/richard-reviews-britannias-spartan-by.html)