Review of Hellfire Corner by Alaric Bond

Hellfire Corner (The Coastal Forces Series Book 1)

Hellfire Corner by Alaric Bond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hellfire Corner, Alaric Bond’s latest nautical adventure, departs the Age of Fighting Sail where his other 13 novels are set and instead goes aboard MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats) and MGBs (Motor Gun Boats) of the Coastal Forces in the English Channel during WWII. MGBs were made of wood and powered by two or three massive petrol-drinking internal combustion engines. The boats were lightly armed with half-inch Vickers and 20mm Oerlikons and their wooden hulls had no armour whatsoever.

Fast but vulnerable, MTBs and MGBs were in the main manned by men with little sea time or experience prior to the outbreak of war. Bond accurately depicts the struggle to fight both the elements and the enemy, as well as the constant need to maintain and repair the boats and their hard-pressed engines. He accurately catches the “business as usual” heroism of such men who simply got on with their dangerous and at times near suicidal jobs. Unlike novels based in the age of Nelson, these people talk like us, and Bond catches their voices.

Where the historic great sea battles wounded or killed men in horrific numbers, this Channel war at sea is intimate. Bond excels in generating suspense by depicting the randomness of combat, in which one man may live when another man beside him is killed or maimed. In Hellfire Corner, the eight men aboard MGB 95 are all fully realized characters. We feel we know the men because they are not faceless, nameless crew.

When not on sorties that typically lasted less than 24 hours, men in the Coastal Forces during WWII lived ashore in barracks, hotels or homes that were often under cannon fire from the German guns across the Channel. Their shore lives are therefore much more a part of Bond’s Hellfire Corner than are women characters in novels about the 18th Century. We meet members of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), who served ashore in communications and the detection of enemy ships and planes.

There is no single hero in Hellfire Corner, waiting to appear in a sequel. Instead, we are immersed in the unpredictability of war, where success and survival can be earned, but are always partly a matter of chance.

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Shirley MacKenzie can see into my head

Here is one of the illustrations Shirley Mackenzie drew for River of Stones, which will be launched in the next few days. When I looked at her first draft, a host of objections swarmed into my mind. Where were the steps my characters ascended as they came up the companionway from the great stern cabin to stride across the smooth white deck of the command position? So I started to kvetch obsessively about details that couldn’t possibly appear in a drawing that fits into a ten centimetre square space in the text.

Next morning, I realized that she’d given life and action to a moment in the story when the three masted schooner Elusive charges past the headlands on her way toward the final scene in the story.

Shirley MacKenzie can see into my head. That’s what it feels like when she shows me one of her illustrations for my books. It’s as if she were looking over my shoulder into my dream-like imaginings where my stories come from. I find myself saying, “How did she know that?”

Believe me, this is rare. Writers get together to commiserate about illustrations to their novels. Book designers slap images onto the covers of books that are ludicrously at odds with the stories inside. Authors go apoplectic when the slim, intellectual, raven-haired beauty in their text is represented by a buxom blonde with a blank stare.

Shirley drew the dragons for The Laughing Princess, put the psychedelic VW camper-van on the cover of The Hippies Who Meant It, and now she’s captured the schooners in my imagination and realized them on the pages of The River of Stones.