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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults ~ Nautical Fiction

Blue Water, Scarlet Tide               Capital's Punishment               Bellerophon's Champion

Cover Art: Blue
                    Water, Scarlet Tide
Blue Water, Scarlet Tide
By John M. Danielski
Penmore Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1-942756-96-5, US $21.95
e-book ISBN 978-1-942756-97-2, US $8.50

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Royal Marine Captain Thomas Pennywhistle swims ashore in July 1814, to rescue a captured lieutenant who is scheduled to hang as a spy on the morrow. He succeeds in the endeavor, but not without cost, and the result adds to his haunting memories of war. Fighting had never been his goal, but an incident during his days at medical school forced him onto this path – one at which he is very good. Thus his next mission is to find a suitable landing site along the Chesapeake Bay for British troops from Admiral Cockburn’s flotilla. Unlike last time, he’s determined that the slaves who help him will secure their freedom.

He and Gabriel Prosser meet at a pre-arranged rendezvous near the Patuxent River, but are unexpectedly interrupted by four men. These Marylanders have come to move hidden gold, and from them he learns that they are responsible for the loss of a missing ship and her crew. Pennywhistle recovers the British payroll, locates a good place to land soon-to-arrive regiments of veteran infantry, and arranges to meet Gabriel at an extraction point. But a posse of slave hunters, with their hounds, track down the runaway slave, only to find themselves led into an ambush.

As the landing time nears for the British troops, Pennywhistle and his scouting party head toward Bladensburg, Maryland. One of their first objectives is to locate the U. S. Navy’s flotilla of gunboats – perhaps the only real impediment to the British advance on Washington. Like an unevenly balanced scale, war pits success against failure, each with its own consequences. This time an innocent soul deepens the indelible wound in his psyche, yet also brings him face-to-face with his doppelganger, an American Marine.

Captain John Tracy should have killed the British officer rifling through his papers, but is astonished to find himself looking at a man who could be his twin. Although the similarities are too close to be coincidental, he vows to avenge the slaying of six-year-old Molly. Duty must come first, however, and with the British on the march, he prevents them from using the flotilla against his fellow Americans. Then he must locate his commander to report what he knows. On the way to Washington, he encounters a group of drunken teens shooting at Redcoats as they come ashore. His conscience forces him to act, so he launches a daring rescue to save at least some of the lives of these miserable wastrels.

In the ensuing pages of this tale, which takes us up to the moments before the Battle of Bladensburg, we accompany the British as they endure marching through enemy terrain in wool uniforms on hot, humid, summer days. We witness surprising and bloody encounters with American marines and inexperienced militia, including an attack from the air in a hot-air balloon and an audacious escape through enfilading fire. We also experience the same frustrations and astonishments as Pennywhistle and Tracy when they encounter the stunning ineptitude of American leaders. Not to mention the startling, yet refreshing, introduction of a frontier sharpshooter, who almost succeeds in taking down Pennywhistle.

Most chapters in this third book in the Royal Marine Captain Thomas Pennywhistle series are of average length, but several are between twenty-five and forty-seven pages long. Readers will encounter occasional misspellings and missing words, as well as several instances where certain phrases may pull the reader out of the story. For example, in 1814, Washington is known as Washington City, rather than Washington, DC (45), and while the effects of adrenaline (415) are familiar, the word itself isn’t coined until its discovery in 1901 by a Japanese chemist. The inclusion of salicylic acid as the active ingredient in aspirin (106) also intrudes into the story.

On the other hand, Blue Water, Scarlet Tide is a thought-provoking and you-are-there recreation of the days leading up to the British invasion of our nation’s capital. Most of the action takes place on land, but a few water encounters provide edge-of-your-seat thrills and heart-stopping action. The story provides readers with a good understanding of the differences between the two armies and ably showcases the contrast between militia and professional soldiers.

Danielski’s strength in crafting stories lies in his knowledge of history and experience as a historic interpreter. These skills allow him to transport us back to a crucial time in the War 1812 to find ourselves marching alongside the troops, experiencing the scratch of wool against sweaty skin, the constant biting of insects, and the throat-parching thirst of trekking along dusty roads under a brutal sun. He also conveys with keen insight the physical and psychological toll war takes on men, especially those who have engaged the enemy for more than a decade. Interwoven through Tracy’s story is a curious mystery about a secret organization that could lead him down a traitorous path. For Pennywhistle, there is an alluring, but highly impractical (the captain’s conclusion, not mine), romantic twist. Then there’s the intriguing thread regarding an occurrence in the distant past that somehow unites these two men in the present. It is hoped that the fourth installment in the series, Capital’s Punishment, will provide resolutions to these story lines as the author once again transports us back to the fateful battle that preceded the burning of the White House.

Review Copyright ©2010 Cindy Vallar

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                        Capital's Punishment
Capital’s Punishment
By John M. Danielski
Penmore Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1-946409-24-9, US $19.50
e-book ISBN 978-1-946409-25-6, US $6.50

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The heat of August 1814 is unbearable, especially for soldiers wearing wool uniforms, yet Royal Marine Captain Thomas Pennywhistle explores the road ahead of the invasion force marching on Washington. At thirty years old, years of war have left him with a jaded heart and scarred soul, but chivalry remains as much a part of him as duty and honor. He quickly dispatches armed deserters from the Maryland Militia threatening an elderly woman trying to protect her farm animals from scavengers, before continuing with his mission. Along the way, he also contemplates the American marine who could almost be his twin. The truth tarnishes his idolized father, but he accepts that U. S. Marine Captain John Tracy must be his brother.

Tracy and his marines, as well as numerous other officers, find it difficult to prepare a defense of the capital because contradicting orders from their commanding officer and interfering politicians countermand army operations. Tracy is among the seasoned fighters who realize that they have no chance of winning the upcoming battle outside Bladensburg. The unknown is how badly they will lose it. For him, another question concerns him. If and when he meets his brother – a stranger until a short while ago – will he be capable of killing him?

Wherever Pennywhistle goes, fighting is sure to follow, so if Sammie Jo Matthews wants to shoot any high-ranking enemy officers, she only has to trail him. From her hiding space, she watches and waits for her chance. She’s as much aware of him as he is of her, which is why he spared her life after she tried to bushwhack him. She’s honor bound to not shoot him, but never promised to stop killing British redcoats. The problem comes when she shoots a fellow American to protect Pennywhistle. Not only has she given away her position, she’s betrayed her country. Which leaves her in a pickle. She may be beautiful, but she’s a backwoods sharpshooter and no way will she ever fit into his world. At least, that’s what Pennywhistle, his brother, and his friends believe. She’ll just have to convince them otherwise – a tough thing to accomplish on the eve of battle and when he’s washed his hands of her.

Capital’s Punishment is a fast-paced, galvanizing depiction of the devastating defeat of the Americans at Bladensburg and burning of the White House and other government buildings in Washington. The action, interspersed with lulls before storms, easily transports readers back in time to witness the most demoralizing event in the War of 1812. Rather than present a single perspective of what occurs, Danielski allows readers to experience history from a variety of British and American viewpoints, thus allowing us to gain a better understanding of why this unfolded as it did.

From time to time, there are chinks in the story: misspelled or missing words and disconcerting phrases that occur when the author interrupts to explain some point. Two such examples involve a soldier who decides it’s "time for some French leave, what would be labeled AWOL by future generations," and the preacher whose "irresistible personal magnetism that enraptured a man almost against his will; later generations would call it 'charisma.'" (235 and 279 respectively) The problem with these explanations is that they pull readers out of the story. Readers may also find the resolution of the "insidious secessionist conspiracy" unsatisfactory and the lengthy explanation of how Sammie Jo speaks tedious.

These are minor imperfections when weighed against the pivotal way Danielski brings to life three days of a war that spanned three years. He paints a graphic depiction of the realities of war, never glamorizing what transpires and always showing how it affects those who experience it. He vividly recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of the aftermath of battle. His interpretation of the storm that struck Washington and the surrounding area while the city burned unfolds in a way that places readers in the midst of the rain, wind, and terror. The colloquial dialogue some characters speak helps to round out the feel of the time period and provides readers with unique mental images that are easily grasped. One example comes when two former slaves are spying on Americans gathering to launch a counterstrike on the British. “Did you get a look at their faces? Every man jack in that column was as hungry for a fight as a dog spotting a steak bone.” (290)

Perhaps the most striking facet in Capital’s Punishment is the portrayal of war versus civility. Time and again, survival forces men and women to come to grips with realities that require them to do immoral acts, which are counter to the morals on which they’ve been raised. While the final confrontation between Pennywhistle’s veteran soldiers and common Americans led by a fire-and-brimstone preacher who imagines himself to be a modern-day Oliver Cromwell, is fictional, it is also heart-stopping, edge-of-your-seat, and breathtaking. The dénouement is poignant, unexpected, revealing, and indelible.

Review Copyright ©2018 Cindy Vallar

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                            Art: Belleropone's Champion
Bellerophon’s Champion: Pennywhistle at Trafalgar
By John M. Danielski
Penmore Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1-946409-86-7, US $19.50
e-book ISBN 978-1-946409-87-4, US $5.50

Distraught over being jilted by her fiancé, Pennywhistle’s beloved cousin kills herself. Thomas, a medical student, misread the signs and blames himself, which is why he intervenes when he witnesses a gentleman thrashing a woman. The cascade of events that follow forever alter his life. Instead of becoming a doctor, he joins the Royal Marines.

Three years later, on 21 October 1805, First Lieutenant Thomas Pennywhistle finds himself aboard HMS Bellerophon, a ship of the line more commonly referred to by her crew as the “Billy Ruffian.” The vessel is one of twenty-seven, approaching Cape Trafalgar and the combined fleets of France and Spain. Before long, the two enemies will engage in the battle Admiral Nelson has long sought. It will pit his ships against thirty-three ships of the line, armed with 2,636 guns and manned by 26,000 men. Nelson’s warships carry only 2,200 guns and 18,400 seamen and marines.

Since his commander suffers from consumption, Thomas is responsible for the men serving under him. He is an excellent marksman and hunter, but has never applied either talent in fighting. The coming conflict will provide the perfect opportunity to test his skills in actual battle. He has also provided some of the crew with sword-fighting instruction, so they might better defend the ship if boarded. The two second lieutenants serving with him are Luke Higgins and Peter Wilson.

Higgins is an Irishman, the youngest officer aboard, and only joined the marines eight weeks earlier. From Thomas’s perspective, Higgins likens “the great conflict ahead [to] a giant version of some schoolyard tussle.” (30) Yet he has the determination and passion to be a hero, and he wants to emulate Pennywhistle, who he sees as an older brother.

Wilson may have gentlemanly manners and a sharp mind, but few trust him. Nor does it help that he’s particularly adept at playing cards and is owed money by many of the officers. Joining the marines wasn’t his preferred option, but it was the only way that he could disappear before becoming embroiled in a legal suit. The last thing he wishes to become is a hero and he’s not particularly keen to stand in harm’s way during the forthcoming battle. Thomas finds him disturbing, and the ring Wilson wears also niggles at Thomas’s memory, but he hasn’t a clue why that might be.

The story unfolds from the perspectives of a variety of characters, including those mentioned above and the Bellerophon’s captain, schoolmaster, several crewmen and marines, the surgeon, and two women – Mary Stevenson, the gunner’s pregnant wife, and Nancy Overton, whose husband is the sailing master. This diversity allows readers to experience the breadth of battle in all its horror and glory. There are also a number of animals aboard, whose antics before, during, and after the battle provide humorous interludes and grim reality that contrasts with the experiences of the men and women.

The battle commences at noon, and the twenty-six chapters depicting it provide more than enough evidence to prove it was a “long and bloody affray,” as one character foresees. The first fourteen chapters show how each character prepares and what he or she thinks prior to the first shot being fired. These pages may not pass quickly, yet they allow readers to get a feel for the slow passage of time that the participants experience, or as the author writes “the minutes were moving at the pace of crippled turtles traversing fields of molasses” – a passage that vividly describes the battle when the wind slackens as much as it does the long wait for the engagement to begin. (147)

Although this is the fourth Pennywhistle book to be published, it actually takes place prior to the previous books in the series and it explains how Thomas comes to join the Royal Marines. The only drawback to the story is the lack of proofreading. There are too many misspellings, missing words, duplicated words, and misplaced apostrophes to go unnoticed. Yet the author has a gift of crafting phrases that vividly get the point across, as when he compares an amputation to peeling an onion.

Danielski expertly depicts the battle in a way that compels readers to keep reading in spite of the gruesome and brutal realities of war. He makes readers care about the characters, which makes for poignant, gut-wrenching scenes, while at the same time portrays the determination and self-sacrifice the participants willingly made to protect others. He also commendably demonstrates that war cares little for who and what a man is or does. A man might overcome a personal struggle only to be removed from the action without rhyme or reason.

Review Copyright ©2018 Cindy Vallar

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