“Among Francis Drake’s crew, it was dangerous to be both insignificant and expendable.”
When I was a pre-teen and teen, I was an avid reader of stories about pirates, buccaneers, and shipwreck survivors. I don’t remember when I stopped reading those stories – probably around age 14 or so when I was parentally encouraged to stop being such a tomboy and turn my mind to more feminine interests. While I never gave up on historical fiction (or stories that were actually written in the 1800’s or so), I moved away from the nautical adventure story that was apparently for boys and not for me. Although I revisited it through Melville in college, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy a good adventure on the high seas.
At Drake’s Command: The Adventures of Peregrine James During the Second Circumnavigation of the World, written by David Wesley Hill, was an enjoyable and extremely satisfying read. Although Amazon indicates a print length of 426 pages for the book, it went much quicker than I expected. I read an average of 50 pages an hour when I’m focused, and this novel took me somewhere between 4-5 hours to read. Overall, it left me wanting more, but it didn’t leave me with a feeling that the story was incomplete. Although it ends on a cliffhanger, it found a good stopping point. If the sequel were available, I think I would have bought it as soon as I finished this one.
The story begins when Peregrine James is accepted on Francis Drake’s crew after proving he’s got what it takes during a public whipping. Young Perry has been falsely accused of being a thief, but his culinary abilities and the manner in which he endures his punishment impresses Drake’s partner, Thomas Doughty, after Perry requests to join their crew. Doughty offers him employment as a cook’s assistant, and the adventure begins.
The character of Perry James is an earnest, loyal, and scrupulously honest young man. It is those very characteristics which get him into several dangerous situations as the story progresses. One of the joys of the book is that Perry, who is, after all, just a cook, uses his knowledge of cookery to get out of those dangerous situations and to serve his own measure of justice. Throughout, he approaches his hardships and dangers with an even temper, gratitude toward his captain, and a quiet sense of humor.
Author Hill takes on a difficult task in giving a fictional character an active role in historically well-documented events. He does so with great skill, and the ways in which Peregrine James, the lowest member of Drake’s crew, fits into those events feels authentic and his presence doesn’t change the facts as set out by history.
I am always more than happy when Historical Fiction places as much emphasis on the Historical as it does on the Fiction . In addition to staying within the restrictions of history, Perry James’ story is told in first person with language accurate to the time period which manages to move along at a brisk pace nonetheless. Finally, you’ll pick up a lot of nautical terminology and knowledge over the course of the book – all of which is effortlessly conveyed as the novice seaman learns these things himself.
My only mild criticisms of the book are that Perry’s attitude toward women, other races, and members of non-Christian religions is probably too modern for a man of his class background and time period. I know that for him to be a likeable protagonist to a modern reader, he has to be a cut above his fellow crew members in this respect, but sometimes I felt he was just a little too egalitarian in his thinking. Additionally, while there was always a very well done justification for how the crew’s lowest ranking member managed to end up in the thick of the action in a trusted capacity, there were a couple of times when I thought it was a bit of a stretch for him to be involved in the way that he was.
Overall, At Drake’s Command is a really entertaining read. It’s jam-packed with adventure, clings close to historical reality, has a likeable and interesting protagonist, and comes from the pen of a master storyteller. I give it 4.5 stars and highly recommend it to readers who enjoy Historical Fiction or just a darn good story. Interested readers can purchase a copy at Amazon.com for $3.99 by clicking here.