The Ring Of Fire books are a mixed bag. Sharecropped by many authors, ringmastered by Eric Flint, they range from plodding historical soap opera to sharp, clever entertainments full of crunchy geeky goodness for aficionados of military and technological history.
When Flint’s name is on the book you can generally expect the good stuff. So it proves in the latest outing, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, a fun ride that’s (among other things) an affectionate tribute to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and age-of-sail adventure fiction in general. (Scrupulously I note that I’m personally friendly with Flint, but this is exactly because he’s good at writing books I like.)
It is 1636 in the shook-up timeline birthed by the town of Grantville’s translocation to the Thuringia of 1632. Eddie Cantrell is a former teenage D&D player from uptime who became a peg-legged hero of the Baltic War and then husband of the not-quite-princess Ann-Catherine of Denmark. Now the United States of Europe is sending him to the Caribbean with an expeditionary force, Flotilla X-Ray, to seize the island of Trinidad from the Spanish and harvest oil desperately needed by Grantville’s industry.
But it’s not a simple military mission. There are tensions among the factions in the allied fleet – the United States of Europe, the Danes, the Dutch, and a breakaway Spanish faction in the Netherlands. And the Wild Geese – exiled Irish mercenaries under the charismatic Earl Tyrconnell – have their own agenda. Cardinal Richelieu’s agents are maneuvering against the whole enterprise. And as the game opens, nobody in the fleet knows about the desperate, hidden Dutch refugee colony on Eustatia…
If the book has a fault, it’s that authors Flint and Gannon love their intricate wheels-within-wheels plotting and elaborate political intrigue a little bit too much. It’s fun to watch those gears turning for a while, but even readers who (like me) relish that sort of thing may find themselves getting impatient for stuff to start blowing up already by thirty chapters in.
No fear, we do get our rousing sea battles. With novel twists, because the mix of Grantville’s uptime technology with the native techniques of the 1600s takes tactics in some strange directions. I particularly chuckled at the descriptions of captive hot-air balloons being used as ship-launched observation platforms, a workable expedient never tried in our history. As usual, Flint (a former master machinist) writes with a keen sense of how applied technology works – and, too often, fails.
If some of the character developments and romantic pairings are maybe a little too easy to see coming, well, nobody reads fiction like this for psychological depth or surprise. It’s a solid installment in the ongoing series. Oh, and with pirates too. Arrr. I’ll read the next one.