Thursday, January 8, 2015

The HMS Swift Adventures review

   Historical fantasy is something of a niche niche's market. There's some very good examples of the genre such as the Outlander series or Ring of Fire. It's rare you get to see anything which goes head-first into the supernatural, however, and rarer still we see something set during the time period around the Napoleonic Wars. Technically, I should note, the book is set prior to the Napoleonic Wars during the period following the French Revolution but I digress.

    The premise is the titular H.M.S Swift is a class-five frigate, i.e. a really big one, which is sent on a variety of missions by the Admiralty Board to deal with the supernatural. These include a French cargo hull full of George Romero-style zombies, vampires, and pirates with a supernatural twist. The book is divided into a short-story, a novella, and a full-length novel about the ship all patched together with a note by the author.

    Much of the novel's fun comes from the fact these are bog-standard fantasy monsters being encountered by our protagonists for the first time. Everyone who has ever seen a zombie movie knows why someone getting bitten is bad or why you should shoot one of Romero's shamblers in the head but you can forgive King George's sailors for not having that sort of experience. Derek Gunn doesn't even use the word zombie or vampire to refer to his creatures because there's no way for Captain Butler or his men to know them. Each story is the crew more or less fumbling about in ignorance, trying to figure out a way to kill the monsters they're encountering, before figuring out a way to do just that. As Wolverine said to Sabertooth, "I'm going to cut your g******** head off. See if that works."

   The HMS Swift Adventures are pretty much wall-to-wall action from start to finish. The stories do not take long to get into the monster hunting and proceed to become battles for the crew's life against impossible odds. In a way, they remind me of Dan Abnett's Gaunts Ghosts series as the majority of their characterization is taken from how each of the character's reacts in combat. While there are numerous characters, the chief one is definitely Captain Butler, who has the misfortune of surviving enough encounters with the supernatural to be deemed an expert in it.

    The book's main flaw is the historical details are fine but the author never stops to let us breathe in the 18th century's air. We get a few good moments like how Captain Butler handles troublemakers on his ship and the amount of smuggling which goes on in the Navy but too much time is spent cutting off vampire heads versus how the character's feel about it.

    Which is something I'd never thought I'd say.

    I think the stories would have been much improved if Derek Gunn had done like his Vampire Apocalypse books and sat us down long enough to get to know the HMS Swift's crew. His anti-vampire resistance in those books was well-fleshed out with numerous quirks and memorable characters. There's a few stand-outs in The HMS Swift Adventures but a little more color wouldn't have hurt.

    Derek Gunn's skill with writing action has not diminished from his other books, however, and he writes an enormous number of entertaining battle scenes. Blades, rifles, and cannon-fire leap off the page as does their limited effectiveness against the supernatural.  Every action sequence is well-realized with numerous action-movie-like sequences. The characters fight intelligently and there's nothing which strains credulity as long as you accept you're facing bullet-proof monsters from beyond-the-grave.

    In conclusion, while flawed, I think this book has a great deal of merit. I give credit to the author for choosing a unique premise. Too many authors are slaves to convention. The fact he was willing to combine Master and Commander with vampire-hunting in the Caribbean deserves some serious kudos.


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