(2007), Chris Roberson, Solaris Books, £9.99, trdpbk, 320pp, ISBN 13: 978-1-844-1-6488-2
Set the Seas on Fire is an old fashioned sea faring yarn that illustrates the formative years of Hieronymus Bonaventure, who is one of the main characters in another novel written by Chris Roberson, Paragaea. There are two strands of the book -- one that explores Hieronymus's (or Hero as he is known) interest in studying swordsmanship at a young age and another where he has taken to sea in the hope of adventure.
It introduces Hero's formative years in England and his desire to deviate from the career path his father has set for him. In doing this he encounters a tutor by the name of Giles Dulac who agrees to teach him the ways of swordsmanship, and whilst doing so seeks to instil lessons in life to Hero he has learned through painful circumstances. The background story provides an ongoing interest as it fleshes out the character of Hero and gives an insight into his personality and motivations as the tale unfolds. Hero is a hot headed and somewhat flawed character who never seems to be far from trouble and finds himself learning some valuable life lessons the hard way, particularly where romantic encounters are concerned.
While at sea he finds himself dealing with issues arising with captain, Northrop Ross, and crew of the ship he is crewing, the Fortitude, and a mystery surrounding a Spanish galleon his captain was intent on pursuing in the hope of procuring a king's ransom. The Fortitude is badly damaged during the attack on the Spanish Galleon, which leads to the Hero and his shipmates to an unknown island and friendships and allegiances with the natives who dwell there. However, things are not as straightforward as they seem at first. The island holds many a dark secret and they discover there is more to the fate of the crew of the Spanish galleon than Hero and his shipmates imagine when they come across two of its crew, adrift at sea in a small boat without water or provisions.
The two strands of the story enable to book's relatively slow start to work in the tale's favour as Hero's fortunes, both past and present, are played out and enables the author to work in cliff hangers that maintain the suspense of the story as events from both timelines unfold. This is helped by the array of background characters and character back stories introduced by the author - for example, the revelations Hero encounters as he gets to know more and more about Giles Dulac's past and what it can teach him. The fact that the crew of the ship are given distinctive personalities and strengths and weaknesses also helps set the scene and carry along the story as Roberson has done an excellent job of ensuring those characters have a specific relevance in proceedings.
There is a wonderful, old-fashioned element to the book as the crew of the ship encounter the islanders and find that, while their native region appears to be a paradise, there are hidden dangers lurking within. For Hero, this turns out to be in the form of a romantic encounter and from his disobeying advice regarding where he should or should not step foot on the island. There is also a hint of the supernatural which is not overplayed and fits in with the environment in the novel, as well as hints at Hero's future that anyone who has read Paragaea will appreciate.
The book is well-paced, but I felt that the encounter with the islanders was dwelt upon for a little too long in comparison to Hero and his crew discovering what fate befell the crew of the Spanish Galleon: this could have been expanded upon as it turns out to be an intriguing conclusion to a mystery that is set when Hero encounters the two crewmembers of the Spanish galleon adrift at sea. However, the tale is given authenticity by the small details considered by the author - for example, language barriers, social hierarchies within the natives and conflicts between the ship's crew. It's touches like that which make the book an engaging read and one that must surely fall into the sub-genre of 'so old it is new'.
You do not need to have read Paragaraea before reading this book, but it would be advantageous to do so in order to have an insight into the character of Hieronymus Bonaventure and the encounters he has along the way. This book is likely to appeal to anyone wanting a good old-fashioned yarn, or historical fiction and the dash of fantasy along the way adds an appealing twist.
Also by Chris Roberson and reviewed on this site is Here, There and Everywhere.
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