Britannia’s Reach, by Antoine Vanner, is the second in a loosely connected series of books about the life and times of a British naval officer in the late 19th century. A while ago I read and reviewed the first in the series. Britannia’s Wolf. The books are independent of each other, and you do not need to have read the first one to understand the second.
Full marks to Antoine for his unusual choice of setting for this book. Dawlish makes a career of handling slightly shady.assignments and there is something of the Mission Impossible in the way he is routinely told that Britain will disavow knowledge of and responsibility for the endeavour if it goes wrong. Here, commercial rather than political interests drive the military goals. In common with many other naval officers of his day, the protagonist Dawlish is courageous, disciplined on a personal level, and very competent at conducting necessary actions on land or sea – or on river, in this case.
The details of naval technology and customs have obviously been very thoroughly researched, and it is clear from other reviewers’ comments that on a military level the book comes over as authentic. Certainly great care has been lavished on descriptions of the military hardware and its use.
However, the book as a whole did not click with me as much as the first one. For one thing there are essentially no female characters explored sympathetically or in depth. This would be fair enough for the shipboard experience, but in Britannia’s Wolf, Antoine successfully found ways to bring female balance into the narrative.
Similarly, the combat action takes over the whole book from early on, and other forms of interaction are largely discarded. The proportion of the book describing battle scenes is extremely high. The few “boardroom” scenes, and the one attempt to parley, scarcely provide balance. The very dubious moral basis for the action as a whole keeps drifting towards the surface, but does not drive the action or the plot: characters may dislike the position they are in, but apparently have no way to step out of it. Dawlish’s adversaries, who on the face of things might well have a greater moral claim on their side, are mostly flat characters who (with one exception) never attain a life of their own.
On a technical level there were a small number of proof reading errors, but none of a serious nature – basically minor slips of present for past tense or the like. Since these slightly increased towards the end of the book I did wonder if things got a bit hurried as a planned release date approached. The production of the kindle version is accurate and makes good use of the various features available – all in all a well turned out book worthy of the naval professionalism it describes.
The content and focus of the book means that for me this is a four-star book – I don’t really enjoy such a purely martial focus. But others who enjoy the vicarious experience of combat in the late nineteenth century will probably rate it more highly, and I feel sure that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Certainly I will be happy to look out for other books in this series as they appear.