Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: Mistress of the Sea by Jenny Barden


Plymouth 1570; Ellyn Cooksley fears for her elderly father's health when he declares his intention to sail with Drake on an expedition he has been backing. Already yearning for escape from the loveless marriage planned for her, Ellyn boards the expedition ship as a stowaway.

Also aboard the Swan is Will Doonan, Ellyn's charming but socially inferior neighbour. Will has courted Ellyn playfully without any real hope of winning her, but when she is discovered aboard ship, dressed in the garb of a cabin boy, he is furious.

To Will's mind, Drake's secret plot to attack the Spanish bullion supply in the New World is a means to the kind of wealth with which he might win a girl like Ellyn, but first and foremost it is an opportunity to avenge his brother Kit, taken hostage and likely tortured to death by the Spanish. For the sake of the mission he supports Drake's plan to abandon Ellyn and her father on an island in the Caribbean until their mission is completed. But will love prove more important than revenge or gold?

Mistress of the Sea is an epic romantic adventure set against the backdrop of Francis Drake's first great enterprise - the attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train' on the isthmus of Panama.

Ebury Press | August 2012

My Review

4 Stars

Jenny Barden's debut novel, Mistress of the Sea, is a tale of high-seas and New World adventure set during the Age of Exploration.  When Ellyn Cooksley's merchant father decides to accompany Francis Drake on a voyage for which he is providing financial backing, she worries he isn't strong enough to handle such an excursion.  Faced with the possibility of marrying one of her father's unappealing business associates, and knowing her sweetheart Will Doonan will also be travelling with Drake, Ellyn's feels her future to be bleak.  On the day Drake's ship is set to sail, Ellyn makes a fateful decision that will change the course of her future - she disguises herself as a boy and stows away on Drake's ship.   What follows is the adventure of a lifetime. 

Mistress of the Sea moves at a steady pace, has sympathetic characters and an engaging plot.  The novel's heroine, Ellyn, is characterized as a smart, resourceful and determined young woman who will do whatever is necessary to protect her father and ensure her own survival.  One of the novel's greatest strengths is that Barden is practical about her fictional characters, particularly Ellyn, who are rarely placed in improbable situations.  As an example, although Ellyn stows away by disguising herself as a boy, once she is discovered both her true gender and identify are almost immediately revealed.  Given Ellyn's disguise is described as lackluster, it would have been unrealistic to expect her to hide her gender for any great length of time, especially given the close confines of a ship.

While Ellyn and Will are fictional characters, much of the foundation for this novel is based on actual historical events involving Francis Drake, a figure who rarely features prominently in historical fiction.   I enjoyed Barden's depiction of Drake, whose strong desire to wrestle New World riches from the Spanish is clearly conveyed.  As a fan of nautical fiction, much of which is set during the Napoleonic Wars, it is refreshing to read a novel set partly on the high-seas before England was a global maritime power.  My only issue with the novel, and it isn't a big one, is that I wish more pages had been devoted to Ellyn's experiences on board ship. 

Overall, Mistress of the Seas is an enjoyable read and should appeal to fans of historical fiction interested in seafaring tales and the Age of Discovery.    I'm looking forward to reading more from Jenny Barden. 

Note: This novel comes from my own personal collection.