Thursday, August 06, 2009


Military history

Successful Vancouver Island author Sean Thomas Russell has combined his twin passions for sailing and history to write a splendid naval historical novel, ‘Under Enemy Colors.’ Published by Putnam/Penguin in September, it is a rollicking good read that follows the adventures of Royal Navy Lt. Charles Hayden in 1797 during Britain’s war with Revolutionary France.

The book’s fact-based focus is quite a departure for the 55-year-old Russell, who has written nine previous books during the past 15 years, all in the genre of “fantasy fiction.” First published in the United States, they are also available in eight languages world-wide, with one version awarded France’s Imaginale Award for best fantasy novel in translation.

Asked why this latest creation is so different from his usual Tolkien-like tales, Russell says, “I guess I needed a break from what I had been doing before. Besides, I have a collection of over 500 books on sailing and history, which started me thinking about doing a straight historical novel for about five years before I tackled writing one.”

“I am a great admirer of John le CarrĂ©, who writes really a hybrid of a genre novel and a literary novel. So I wanted to emulate the way he writes genre novels that also have some literary merit. Also, I am absolutely enthralled by the language of the 18th Century, not just the speech of sailors but of everyday people as well back then. I really wanted to capture their rich, vibrant language, and long, lyrical sentences in a novel. The Oxford English Dictionary became my friend during the two years I was writing ‘Under Enemy Colors.’ Incidentally, my US publishers insisted on using the American spelling of ‘Color’ on the cover title, even though the entire text throughout uses my original British-style spelling.”

To compose a meticulously accurate account, Russell drew on his personal knowledge of sailboat racing and nautical lore, spent five weeks travelling in England and France familiarizing himself with details of various locations, and added more volumes to his already extensive reference library. The result is a salty tale of naval derring-do that also includes enough introspection about the morality of war, divided loyalties, and sympathy for the enemy, to appeal to readers as much interested in the clash of ideas as the crash of cannon.

Russell enthuses, “The story takes place soon after the revolutions in America and France, which brought about huge social changes everywhere. It was a fascinating watershed in human affairs, outcomes of the writings of egalitarian thinkers like Thomas Paine about the rights of man. I wanted to go back to look at that turbulent period, and shrink the concept of revolution itself down to the size of a single ship. It let me look at the characters, circumstances, and emotions of revolutionaries who typically incite a mutiny.

The novel’s protagonist, Lt. Hayden, has the leadership qualities worthy of a Master and Commander, but his promotion is held back by lack of political connections, and having a French mother which opens him to unfounded suspicion of divided loyalties. So instead he is posted to HMS Themis, under the orders of cowardly Capt. Josh Hart, whose arrogance and harsh discipline soon drives his crew to mutiny.

With all that tension aboard, the frigate is also soon in the thick of dangerous storms, coastal patrols, and bloody sea-battles. Along the way, Haydon confronts his dastardly captain and settles a crew of violent mutineers, slips ashore in France on a secret spying mission, plus becoming romantically smitten with a delightful young Englishwoman along the way.

Russell says, “It took a terrific amount of research, but writing it was a lot of fun.” He modestly does not mention that it was also a lot of hard work. Russell produces all his books by following a disciplined regimen of writing six or seven hours a day, five days a week. He is a relentless re-writer as well, revising entire drafts, ruthlessly going over and over what he has written to prune and improve wording until it says exactly what he intends. “I just have to get all the period details exactly right as well, and I take a lot of care to prune out any anachronisms that might have sneaked in.”

He has an ideal writing-place -- a book-lined study in the Comox home he shares with his wife and nine-year-old son, looking out at glorious seascape views and surrounding mountains. As an occasional break from pounding the keyboard, Russell loves to board his wooden sailboat and cruise the waters of south Vancouver Island. His first-hand experience with handling ropes, canvas, and tiller shines through particularly when he describes a hazardous escape in an open boat across the stormy English Channel.


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