The Captain’s Castaway
by Christine Scheel
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21559-1
A Regency about a naval officer should have been a good idea. Unfortunately, the only time this book stops sailing in circles is when it is becalmed entirely.

Captain Sir Nicholas Sidney, in command of the HMS Gallant, is making for Portsmouth after nine months at sea when his crew spots a launch drifting on the sea. Aboard the small boat are a young woman, nearly dead from exposure and dehydration, and an old sailor. Apparently their ship ran onto rocks off the coast of France and foundered.

The launch was intended to carry two women to shore, but tore loose carrying only Jacko the sailor and Julianna Adams, an American en route to England to visit family. They have been adrift for five days. Their ship is presumed to have gone down with all hands, including Julianna’s father.

With Julianna still unconscious, Nicholas goes through her meager possessions and finds letters, including a cryptic missive signed simply “E.A.” These are the initials of Julianna’s father – and those of a “secret French operative whose contact in England was supposedly selling naval secrets to the French.”

Nicholas stammers in the presence of females and has sworn off women as the result of an unfortunate love affair. He’s attracted to the lovely Julianna, but knows he must inform his superiors of her possible connection with espionage.

Hardly has Nicholas delivered the pretty refugee to her aunt and uncle in London when they receive a mysterious letter from Julianna’s father saying that he is alive but cannot divulge his whereabouts, and hopes that Julianna survived the shipwreck. Naturally this gives rise to all kinds of speculation about what happened to their ship. Nicholas investigates, but cannot discover anything about its fate. It can’t be found in any port, but they don’t know for sure that it sank, either.

A short way into this book, it becomes apparent that the author is not terribly concerned with niceties of time, geography or logic. On page two, it’s noted the Gallant will make Portsmouth “in a week.” On page 24, the ship gets there “in three days.” Julianna and Jacko were put into the launch so they could row to shore – and even had enough sail aboard to make a tent for shelter – but instead of rowing (or sailing) to shore, simply drifted around for five days.

The author makes a point of explaining that a Letter of Marque is “a license granted by the sovereign entitling a ship’s captain – by international law – to commit acts that might otherwise have constituted piracy.” Except, weren’t Letters of Marque issued to merchantmen or private individuals (hence the term ‘privateer’)? Why would Nicholas need a Letter of Marque? He’s in the navy, and England is at war with France in 1812 – it’s pretty much his job to capture enemy ships.

Most of the book consists of Julianna and Nicholas asking around to see if anyone’s seen or heard anything of her father, and becoming attracted to each other. For long, long stretches, people just go about their business: Julianna gets a new wardrobe, she travels into the country with her aunt and uncle to an estate that just so happens to be next door to Nicholas’s family’s estate, people go riding, have dinner and so forth. About two-thirds of the way through, the author suddenly seems to realize that there a few things she wants us to know, so there’s a little frenzy of rather confusing exposition.

None of this would be of any moment, of course, if the characters of Nicholas and Julianna were compelling. Both were likable enough, and Nicholas in particular had the potential to step outside of the usual Regency hero mold. Long before the book is half over, however, we’ve been told everything we’re going to learn about them, and, given the rather clichéd circumstances, that makes the rest of the book rather wooden and predictable.

Like many Regencies I’ve read recently, there’s a good story idea here – but not a compelling book.

--Judi McKee

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