Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Review: False Colors By Alex Beecroft

In 1762, John Cavendish is given his first command, the HMS Meteor. Along with a motley crew and a handsome second in command (Lt. Alfie Donwell), Cavendish receives orders for a suicide mission to attack a fleet of pirates off the coast of North Africa. The captain’s stern moral attitude keeps a distance between himself and Donwell, but before HMS Meteor can engage the enemy, Donwell is captured and beaten to within an inch of his life. Cavendish leads a daring rescue mission and recovers his lieutenant, then unleashes a bold attack and manages to inflict his revenge, complete his mission, and flee the enemy relatively unscathed.

But before they reach the safety of port Gibraltar, Cavendish is wounded during another sea battle, and it’s Lt. Donwell’s turn to play nursemaid. During Cavendish’s recuperation, he and Donwell slowly become close friends – born from each other’s brush with death – so close that Donwell misinterpret the captain’s familiarity and makes an improper advance, professing his love for Cavendish. The captain immediately rejects him, and fearing recrimination which could lead to hanging, he takes a berth on another ship, HMS Britannia where he comes under the protection of Captain Farrant, a gay man whom Donwell has a history. They quickly become lovers, and Farrant tells Donwell, "Stop chasing love. Love is not for men like us. We share a deviancy we must pay for with lives of exemplary duty...You will get yourself hanged if you think otherwise.” Although that seems to be a theme in the story, it’s impossible for the hot blooded Lieutenant to follow such advice.

By the time Cavendish recovers and goes back to sea – not as captain, but as second in command – he has realized why his insides feel like a black hole after Donwell abandoned him. He had unwittingly fallen in love with the handsome Lieutenant. And as horrible as that thought is for this morally prudish man, the only thing worse is not having his love near him. The two men have a series of adventures before destiny brings them together again. And when they come together, with the full knowledge that they love each other, will duty and the threat of hanging keep them from becoming lovers? I won’t give it away, but suffice to say, their woeful adventures are far from over.

Narrated in the manner of a 19th century novel – primarily told, not shown – the characters are kept at a slight distance from the reader. There was not only this slight detachment, but I never really warmed up to either main character. I didn’t dislike them, they simply failed to win my sympathy, so I was not fully invested in their story. These protagonists are complex, flawed and for the most part believable. There were one or two scenes when Cavendish did something so completely out of character that he was not credible. There were several secondary characters that I would have like to have seen expanded, and even with the two lovers there were episodes that could have benefited by drilling to a deeper understanding.

Beecroft is superb at providing believable detail of 18th century life, especially nautical detail. This is where the author truly shines brightest. She puts you on deck of a tall ship and on the smelly wharfs. You feel the wind in your face, the fear of battle, the agony of wounds. At times I felt the story line sagging from the weight of too much description, but those times were infrequent. Although I am, admittedly, not a huge fan of historical fiction, I found myself fascinated by the world Beecroft creates. What I do love are good sea yarns, and False Colors is exactly that.

Beyond the normal romance plot twists, is the convincing story of two men in turmoil, and their only chance for survival is to cling to each other, which of course is seldom the case. The many varied plot twists kept me turning pages. There were times when I felt the storyline was too predictable, and there were certain elements about the ending that were disturbing, but that did not detract from my enjoyment of this story. I have no reservation in recommending this book to anyone.

Find out more about False Colors and other Alex Beecroft novels here.


Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks so much for the review, Alan! I'm really glad that you enjoyed it, and particularly delighted that you thought it was a good sea yarn. That was definitely one of my main aims :)

Thanks again!


Anne Brooke said...

I agree - it's fabulous! One of the best books I've read for a long time!