In Britannia’s Spartan, the fourth book in the Dawlish chronicles, Antoine Vanner takes us to the China seas where Dawlish must again act for Britain as a diplomat charged with obtaining permission for the Royal Navy to visit Korean ports and map its coastline. Caught at the centre of the struggle among the Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese, Dawlish must both negotiate and fight with all three on land and at sea. The diplomacy is as devious as the fighting is intense.
Dawlish carries the burden of command which “was the burden he had ached and striven for since boyhood and the reality was more terrible than he ever could have imagined in those long years.” Through his eyes, we see appalling brutality, carnage and destruction, as well as heroism and honour.
As before, Vanner’s book is not for the faint of heart. He does not shrink from the blood-and-guts of war, but in portraying Dawlish as an able risk-taker, he deftly winds together the intellectual appeal of tactics, the terror of conflict and the pity Dawlish feels for the victims of war as he orders his ship and men into situations in which it is certain that there will be casualties.
More than just a good read, this historic novel carries a sense of foreboding. Vanner’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the technology of warfare at sea in the decades immediately prior to World War I, along with his portrayal of the enmity among the Asian powers, together offer us a glimpse into that most populous area of the world at a time when it was largely misunderstood or ignored by Europe and America until it was almost too late.