A Darker Sea: Master Commandant Putnam and the War of 1812 by James L. Haley
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017. Hardcover, 464 pages.
Hello, readers! Scott here, giving Amy a week off by delivering a review of James L. Haley’s A Darker Sea. This book hits store shelves on November 14, but we were able to receive an advance reading copy electronically through the First to Read program. Having strongly enjoyed Haley’s first naval novel, The Shores of Tripoli, I was anxiously awaiting the promised second entry in the series, and now I have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.
When last we left Bliven Putnam at the close of The Shores of Tripoli, the newly-promoted lieutenant commandant was wounded while defending some of his shipmates from a British press gang. A Darker Sea skips forward six years, its opening chapters taking us to the year 1811. Like much of the first novel, Putnam is once again on shore, having made only one brief cruise in that span of time. Putnam has kept himself busy, however, helping his parents maintain their farm and expanding into other business ventures alongside his wife, Clarity Marsh. His friend and shipmate, Samuel Bandy, separated from the naval service following his father’s death at the close of the previous book and now captains a merchant vessel of which he owns part. Bandy’s own bride, Rebecca Barnes, awaits his return from this latest voyage at their South Carolina plantation home.
Unfortunately, Bandy’s journey is far from a peaceful one. The ship and her cargo are seized and Bandy is impressed into British naval service by Captain Lord Arthur Kington of HMS Java, with whom he and Putnam had crossed paths in Naples. Far from an isolated incident, this represents only the latest instance of British vessels harrying American shipping, and President James Madison is forced to take action. This action brings our hero back into active service with a promotion to master commandant, though the recent naval policy of building gunboats to the exclusion of all else leaves him a captain without a ship. While he waits for the refitting of USS Tempest which has been promised to him, he serves aboard his old vessel, the Constitution. Under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, Constitution and her crew meet with several successes and the ship earns her nickname of “Old Ironsides” as British cannon fire bounces off her live oak hull. Tempest‘s refit is finally completed and Putnam commands her into the Atlantic to cruise against British shipping as the Royal Navy had been doing to American craft. Through the fortunes of war, both good and bad, our hero is led into a battle with Java, a confrontation with Kington, and a chance to rescue his comrade Bandy.
Let me start by saying that I enjoyed A Darker Sea every bit as much as The Shores of Tripoli. As before, the historical events are solid and Putnam does not seem out of place despite being inserted by Haley. While there is not as much sea action as I would prefer, this is justified by the events of the time, as the Navy was largely laid up in ordinary and out of circulation. An improvement that Haley has added over the first novel is an increased amount of time away from Putnam himself to focus on supporting characters. In the previous book, other than Rebecca and her father, there are few instances of someone other than Putnam occupying the primary point of view. This time around, the very first lines open with Bandy aboard his merchant vessel, while Clarity also receives a fair bit of attention both with and without Putnam during the course of events. This adds a greater breadth to the plotline as well as helping to build into Putnam’s action later in the story.
On the other side of the coin, there are still some improvements that could be made to future works in the series. Most of them are minor, but one point in particular has stuck with me since The Shores of Tripoli. Twice now, Haley has shown readers the promise of a budding minor character that is introduced, has a couple of scenes with Putnam… and is promptly killed off in the next action sequence. Meanwhile, once Putnam finally takes command of the Tempest, his first lieutenant can only be described as flat; outside of a bare physical description, he garners just a few obligatory lines, with no distinguishing personality to be gleaned from their delivery. Putnam needs another strong secondary character to provide both depth and contrast. The presence of Clarity in the scenes set on shore serves in just that capacity, giving them an extra dimension that the shipboard sections lack. Hornblower had Lt. Bush, Aubrey had Dr. Maturin, now Putnam needs his shipboard supporter. Whether that character fills the role of co-star or sidekick, our hero can only be the stronger for having him there.
Faults aside, A Darker Sea is a solid continuation to the series Haley started in The Shores of Tripoli. As with the first novel, I was happy to pick this book up for the introduction and reluctant to put it down at its conclusion. There is great potential for more adventures featuring Putnam, Marsh, Bandy, and the rest of the cast. Particularly, I look forward to Putnam gaining an independent command that lets him break free from the historical figures which have kept him company so far, like Edward Preble and William Hull, and chart his own course. It’s been only about a year between the two books, and if Haley holds this pace, I look forward to seeing a third volume released around this time in 2018.