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Monday, September 17, 2007

I just finished Land of Mist and Snow by Debra Doyle and James Macdonald. This an alternate history fantasy about two civil war era ships doing battle on the high seas. The twist here is that the souls of these ships are captured elemental spirits. It's an interesting premise, one that many professional, as well as recreational mariners, will appreciate; all vessels are viewed by their crews as near-living things, if not actually living things, and all crews consort with seaborne superstitions and myth.

The story begins as Lieutenant Nevis receives word he's getting the detachment of his dreams, the opportunity to leave his desk job at the War Department on Whitehall Street in New York to finally join the fight in the sailing Navy. His first assignment: to inspect and take possession of a dozen ten inch Rodman guns at the Naval Arsenal in Watervliet.

Your first inkling of the story's supernatural slant comes at the end of the first chapter, when Nevis learns the guns and cannon balls are made of pure virgin brass, and that they are destined for an experimental ship of war being constructed on the ice at Thule. For me, that was the hook. The vessel was being built on the ice and not a railway at a shipyard because, for reasons that become clear later on, the ship could not come in contact with land.

Doyle and Macdonald have constructed a logical and very entertaining supernatural story pitting good against evil, weaving in various aspects of reality and staying faithful to the prose and authenticity of the era. I was particularly impressed with their nautical detail and accuracy.

The story is told in log book or diary form, with first person entries from the various characters. If the overall effort has any fault, it lies here, as the entries don't really allow for much individuation of character. This can be a huge stumbling block for avid readers of contemporary fiction, i.e. people who prefer third person narratives and/or a more dialog driven format.

Perhaps the above is a kind way of saying the story lacked strong characterization. And maybe it does. Either way, I wasn't deterred from having a good time. Kudos to the authors for keeping me entertained throughout. And with a story that takes place almost entirely at sea. Trust me, one misstep in the nautical accuracy department and I would have tossed the book in the garage. (I would have said "overboard" but International Discharge of Waste and Dunnage laws prohibit that sort of irresponsible activity.)


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