Friday, March 30, 2012

Review: "The Mountain of Gold," J. D. Davies

By Paul Carrier

This second entry in J. D. Davies’ promising new series sees the return of 17th-century English navy captain Matthew Quinton, a bit older - and somewhat wiser in the ways of the sea - than he was when we met him in Gentleman Captain, as his first ship was about to go aground with the loss of almost all hands.

In this outing, the once-callow Quinton takes the helm of his fourth command, the frigate Seraph, as it prepares to sail for Africa with two other ships in search of what Brian Doyle O’Dwyer, an Irishman turned Barbary pirate turned lieutenant colonel in the king’s Irish army, insists is a mountain of gold.

King Charles II is obsessed with finding and mining the treasure trove, hoping it will make him rich enough to rule as he pleases, and lord it over the wealthy Dutch, without having to rely on Parliament for funding. But before he sets sail, Quinton learns that mysterious forces plan to sabotage the expedition and prevent an independently wealthy king from becoming autocratic.

That keeps Quinton on alert as the voyage progresses, but he has pressing family matters on his mind as well. The king has arranged a marriage between Quinton’s brother Charles, the earl of Ravensden, a wounded veteran who is believed to be gay, and a woman rumored to have killed her two previous husbands.

Quinton, his wife, and his uncle vigorously disapprove of the marriage and would love nothing better than to undo it, but he must put aside that ambition while pursuing what he firmly believes is a fool’s errand to find the elusive mountain of gold.

Davies is an expert on the navy of 17th-century England (he wrote Pepys’s Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-1689) and he brings that knowledge to bear in this fast-moving tale. For example, Quinton’s ship uses a whip staff to steer rather than a ship’s wheel, because the wheel was a later innovation. And Quinton and his crew refer to the port side of their frigate as larboard, not port, because larboard was the commonly used term at that time.

The Mountain of Gold features a fine display of often-dry wit, as when Quinton describes the death of a very ancient, and exceedingly dull, Anglican priest. The Rev. George Jermy “had simply halted in the middle of the first verse of Chapter Twenty-Three of Deuteronomy, fallen gently forward in his pulpit, and given up the ghost to a maker who presumably had forgotten to reclaim him several decades before.”

“My mother was a misanthropic old vixen,” Quinton, who narrates the novel as an old man recalling his early years, tells us. “She disliked the common herd of humanity with a venom that in my younger days I reserved for lawyers and the Welsh.”

One of the not-so-small pleasures of The Mountain of Gold, to readers familiar with the diary of the famed English naval administrator Samuel Pepys, is that Pepys makes an appearance in the novel. Quinton describes him as “an odd little man,” pedantic and pompous but also endlessly curious and a good companion “when he was in drink.”

Several loose ends waft in the breeze as The Mountain of Gold sails toward its conclusion, but Davies ties most of them up nicely, in part with an eyebrow-raising revelation about the king’s motive for pushing the seemingly odd marriage of Charles Quinton and Louise, Lady De Vaux.

There is good news for readers who find themselves smitten by this still-new but expanding series.

Davies indicates on his web site ( that he is completing the fourth Quinton novel, to be entitled The Lion of Midnight, which will be set in Sweden in the early months of 1666. And he says he is “starting to sketch out the plot-lines for the fifth and sixth books in the series.” He also has written a series prequel to be released on Kindle, although the publication dates of these books remain unclear.