It went like this: I was reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, and saw that one of his Big Idea posts happened to be for a middle grade novel! That’s always exciting, and is something I watch for. I read the post (here) and was impressed by a few things: a) it’s a seafaring novel, b) it’s set during the War of 1812, c) she writes entertainingly. I decided to keep an eye out for it. Then my copy of The Horn Book Magazine arrived, and totally by accident had a review for this book in it! (Amazing how a children’s book review magazine happened to review a recent children’s book.) It compared the book to Patrick O’Brian, which intrigued me further. So when I happened to be at the best-curated children’s book store I know, I promptly looked around for it and saw they had a copy of this book on prominent display. At that point I caved to fate. I accepted that I was obviously destined to read it and I bought it. It was all completely and totally accidental, you see, if you ignore the part where I spent all that time looking for it.
Since I had some reading time during Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), I accordingly read it. Let me start by saying: Why, yes, this is a very good book and you should read it. It has fine characters, many of them intelligent and courageous young people it would be easy for middle graders to relate to. It has a plot which is finely balanced between fast-paced action and thoughtful analysis of the difficult circumstances the characters find themselves in. It’s also just deliciously, compulsively readable. I dare you to read the first chapter and not be sucked in. (Go on, go on– I dare you!)
As for the novel itself– well, I don’t want to ruin the reading experience for you, so I’ll try just to give you a taste of the characters and story without going too far. The Napoleonic Wars are raging, and the War of 1812 has just broken out. Lucy holds the equivalent rank of lieutenant on her father’s letter-of-marque (or privateer’s ship), The Left-Handed Fate. The Fate has been hired by young Max Ault to help him retrieve the pieces of a mysterious artifact which he believes to be a weapon so powerful it would end all wars. Or will it? Is it even a weapon? What is he searching for? The French are also pursuing the artifact, hoping to get their hands on this destructive weapon. To complicate matters further, the Americans and English are now at war, just as Max and Lucy arrive in American waters. When the Fate is captured by the Americans and Lucy’s father is killed, it seems the whole adventure is about to come to an end. But young Oliver Dexter, an American midshipman, is given command of the prize to bring her to Norfolk, and things get complicated: The French are after the Fate, and Oliver needs the Fate’s sailors to help him fend them off so he can preserve his prize ship for the Americans. Who is whose enemy in such a case? And how will Lucy and Max finish their mission now?
What with the shifting politics of the wars and the overarching desire to find this fabulous artifact which will rend future wars impossible, there is plenty of excitement in this novel. But there’s more than that. I want to point to two elements: a) the fantastic; b) the realism. You might just have blinked and wondered if I’d gone crazy, but, truly, this novel walks a fine line between fantasy and realistic historical fiction, and that’s part of what gives the novel its distinctive flavour. Let’s start with the fantastic.
First of all, the weapon or artifact Max and Lucy are hunting down is evidently fantastical. Everything about it has an aura of the mysterious, starting with the cryptic and ancient Egyptian inscription which guides those who pursue it. Then the crew of the Fate finds itself pursued by an apparently indestructible and unbelievably fast all black brig with black-uniformed crew. Who are they, and what are they after? And when the ship arrives in Nagspeake (a fictional city), it has almost the feeling of a goblin market. And, finally, when the artifact is– well. I won’t spoil that for you. But the supernatural is definitely in the air. If you can ignore how realistic, and even scientific, it all seems. Everything is practical.
You see, Kate Milford has certainly read her Patrick O’Brian novels and done thorough research of her own. She represents the politics and intricacies of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 as clearly and precisely as O’Brian, but pitched at a much younger audience. She raises the issues of impressment and treason, describes the horrors of the war in the Vendée, and altogether evokes a rich and textured picture of the tumultuous years around the early 19th century. She does all this without taking sides and consistently providing an array of sympathetic (and, occasionally, less sympathetic characters) of all stripes. There’s Lucy, brisk, no-nonsense and more at home on the ship than on land; there’s her brother, Liao, a young pacifist and fireworks expert; there’s Max, the clumsy but endearing natural philosopher; and there’s Oliver, the glowing idealist who suddenly realizes that maybe the world’s a bit more complicated than he gave it credit for being. (Confession: I may have a slight crush on Lucy. She’s a truly wonderful character.)
This balance means that as we read, we’re living in a real world. We know the people and the flavours and the sights. We know the people and we know the issues and the dangers they face, and we care. At the same time, some of those problems are just a bit more mysterious than we’re used to, and we always have the feeling that maybe there’s something more happening just around that corner. What do those strange lights mean? What about the black brig? And yet it’s all really real.
This is a perfect middle grade novel, in other words. For a flavour of the naval issues surrounding the War of 1812, and the war’s connection to the Napoleonic Wars, you can hardly do better. But in addition to being an excellent tie-in to a history lesson, it’s also an excellent writing lesson. Kate Milford shows you how to make a big, apocalyptic, fantastical story interesting: by focusing on the precise and minute realism. She evokes a real, true world and populates it with warm, knowable characters, and the big story grows out of that tangible background.
In a nutshell, then, if you like seafaring adventures, or if you’re a history buff, or if you’re simply looking for a quick, fun read with a cast of some of the most sympathetic characters I’ve met lately– get yourself a copy of The Left-Handed Fate.
(Also, Kate Milford? If you decide to emulate Patrick O’Brian further and write twenty of these novels, I’d probably read them all.)