Set the Seas on Fire
By Chris Roberson
With the success of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, it's not surprising to see more authors exploiting the wealth of background material and possibilities offered by the Napoleonic era.
One such author is Chris Roberson, although to say he delves deeply into the depths of this time period would be incorrect. Set the Seas on Fire follows the crew of an English navy vessel as they voyage into the uncharted waters of the Pacific, far away from the war in Europe.
The story starts well. The English crew - and the protagonist, Bonaventure - chase a Spanish ship and later discover from a survivor that the ship's crew disembarked at a distant island and were afflicted by some sort of madness. Naturally the lure of gold proves too strong, and the English crew set off to see if they can find the island and seize the galleon's gold from the crazed Spanish crew.
Roberson's prose is fluid and highly readable, and he generally manages to recreate the feel of the historical period quite well through his characters' dialogue. The early chapters flit between the crew's voyage and Bonaventure's childhood, adding some depth to the protagonist and helping to keep things fresh.
Then it all starts to go wrong.
I have a couple of major criticisms with Set the Seas on Fire, but I'll start with the biggest culprit: the plot. Or, to be more precise, lack of a plot. To be blunt, nothing really happens in this book. After the decent start and the promise of some sort of deranged zombie-like enemies, the English crew de-camp to a tropical paradise and for the next few hundred pages nothing that interesting really happens. Bonaventure develops a relationship with a native girl (handled in a completely unconvincing way), they get attacked by some bat creatures, and some kid steals a gun. That's about it. Sure, there's some interaction with the natives, the odd clash of interests and some shallow exploration of one or two themes, but it's all rather dull.
When the action finally hots up (far too late) it leads to a complete anti-climax of an ending, which just makes you wonder why you bothered reading that far in the first place (particularly as nothing really gets explained). The chapters that focus on Bonaventure's earlier years are disinteresting at best and utterly pointless at worst. You can't have a novel without a story, and Set the Seas on Fire is scuttled by the lack of any meaningful events or genuine excitement.
The other criticism I have relates to the characters. They're just so...boring. Bonaventure - a rather average protagonist - is fleshed out satisfactorily, but generally the rest of the cast have the collective depth of a paddling pool. There's little in the way of character development and most of the supporting characters are completely forgettable. There's not a memorable personality among them. The most interesting figures are the Spanish crazies, so it's disappointing they only appear at the end.
For a novel that has been mooted as "Horatio Hornblower meets H. P. Lovecraft" it is decidedly lacking in atmosphere, and there's no real tension - even when our not-so-intrepid adventurers approach their final destination. The dramatic finale is totally absent.
It's a shame really, as the idea is a good one and Roberson's prose is comfortably engaging. The novel just never builds on the decent start and the lack of entertaining characters and any real semblance of a plot ultimately results in a monotonous novel that doesn't really go anywhere, and offers little in the way of enjoyment for the duration.