Peter Raven: Under Fire
In Brief: An exciting story, well-populated. A few slightly gruesome scenes.
Series: Peter Raven
Publisher: The Chicken House
Published in: 2005
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: Early 19th C
Setting: France, England, West Indies, the High Seas
- Peter Raven is a 13-year-old midshipman from a Sussex vicarage who on his first ship becomes involved with Commodore Beaumont, spy for the British Navy.
- Matthew Book a West Indian sailor on board the Torrone befriends Peter and also joins Beaumont.
- Lucy Cosgrove is an 18-year-old daughter American heiress. She is more used to hunting and tracking than to dresses and parties but manages to draw attention in Paris by her beauty.
- General Ancre is head of French Naval Intelligence, Beaumont's counterpart and sometime adversary, who is a good man trying to serve his master Napoleon.
- Count Vallon is a Pirate King, safe on his island fortress in the West Indies.
The year is 1800 as Peter Raven sails as midshipman aboard the Torrone, only to be hurt in a sea battle off France; when he sails again to the Caribbean the ship is attacked by Pirates and he is set adrift to save himself. Meanwhile Lucy Cosgrove, a young American heiress is drawing attention in Paris by her beauty and her skill as a sharpshooter. And General Ancre has been tasked by Napoleon with persuading the notorious pirate Count Vallon to part with his gold in return for newly-colonised land in the United States.
Well I think we've found something Michael Molloy enjoys writing about. While his other books — the Witch Trade series and The House on Falling-Star Hill — are enjoyable enough, you never really feel he's invested much in the world he's creating. Here, though, he's plunged right in and is having a great time. There's action, there's romance, there's an insanely villainous Count with an island fortress in the Caribbean, there are naval battles, shipboard camaraderie, and family ties. And all this within a recognisable historical framework peopled with three-dimensional characters.
The plot takes in several countries and nationalities and it's refreshing that the author gives every one a fair chance: nationalities are distinct, but there's no Jingoism nor is any nationality demonised. Early on, Peter is warned by an experienced seaman not to believe the propaganda about the French being cowards. This is coupled with a reasonable explanation as to their inferiority at sea. One of the most noble characters we meet is General Ancre, the French Head of Intelligence, appointed by Napoleon — presented as a normal man with his dreams and ambitions — and we suffer with Ancre when his ship is destroyed by fire, and with it his life savings. The Americans are likewise given space to expound their view of the world. The only truly bad characters are the Vallon brother and sister, and they have effectively renounced any nationality.
On the subject of violence, there are of course sea battles between two or three ships, and some hand-to-hand fighting, which is all pretty much as expected in a book set in this period. But there are also a few quite gruesome scenes, all of them involving the clearly evil Count. In a turning-point scene, people we know — not just random extras — have their throats cut and are flung to the sharks, all this happening before the eyes of our young point-of-view character. Later we learn more of the Count's depravities, for example that a young woman spy he discovered was left for dead, every bone in her body broken. It would have been surprising if there had been no violent action in a story set during what was in effect a war, but the mad sadism of the Count might be a little too much for some people.
An aspect worth admiring is the author's ability to inform the reader without interspersing the plot with academic asides. You finish the book knowing much more than you probably did about the military and political situation between England, France and America at the turn of the 19th century as well as a wealth of other incidentals which don't intrude on the story at all. The balance of entertainment and education is hard to achieve, and most writers opt for the one or the other. I take my hat off to Mr Molloy for managing both.
The question of religion is treated with more delicacy than one expects nowadays. General Ancre calls Beaumont and Peter to a secret meeting in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As they enter, Peter — whose father is an Anglican clergyman — is worried that he might be doing wrong by entering a Catholic church. Beaumont points out that Canterbury, a cathedral he has been in, was originally Catholic “before Henry the Eighth appropriated it from Rome”. When they ask Ancre why he chose to meet there — since the message he had to pass on was no great secret — he replies that he “simply thought a visit to Notre Dame would be good for your souls.” And that's a phrase I never thought I'd read in a book for young people these days. Later on, Peter hides in what had been a confessional before the Paris house's chapel was turned into a sitting room post-Revolution, but there's clearly no disrespect meant.
It's impossible to do this book justice in a review. I haven't even mentioned large number of characters or large stretches of storyline. And yet the book doesn't seem cluttered or bloated. This is supposed to be the first in a series, and I'm personally looking forward to the next.
The thick cloud of smoke blew away, and Peter gasped when he saw the deck now strewn with the torn bodies of the men who had obstructed the way.
Beaumont quickly rallied a group around him and pressed on. Never again would Peter listen to any ignorant talk of Frenchmen being cowards. Both sides fought with a ferocity he'd never begun to imagine.
As a young boy, Peter had always thought of battles as a series of knightly clashes with fluttering flags, glittering arms, skilful swordplay and chivalrous consideration. But this was carnage. He had no choice but to fight for his life. Dodging and thrusting with his dirk he fought tenaciously, but in a strange state of detachment, as if part of his mind had disengaged and was watching himself in a nightmare.
Sunday 31st July 2005