Fire on the Waters
© David Poyer 2003
When Eli Eaker volunteered his services to the USS Owanee, his chief intention was to get away from his domineering father and an arranged marriage to his beautiful but sisterly cousin Araminta. That, and physicians suggested the sea air to him as a cure for his ailing lungs. He never expected that the threat of secession, which he used as an excuse for running away from father dear’s iron hand, would be realized in the form of open war, but soon Mr. Eaker finds himself an increasingly needed officer on a cantankerous ship, a sailing-steaming hybrid tasked with the resupply of Fort Sumter. Those with a little historical savvy might guess that such a mission doesn’t pan out, but that’s not the worst of it. The union’s hemorrhage of southern states takes a toll on its officers and enlisted ranks, meaning that Mr. Eaker — a rich scion whose naval experience is limited to adventures on his father’s yacht — finds responsibility thrust upon him, while at the same time he’s distracted by a possibly deathly illness (tuberculosis, known as ‘consumption’) and the woes of his fiance-cousin who is likewise desperate to escape Eaker Sr.
Fire on the Waters is the ‘hardest’ historical fiction I’ve read; not difficult, but hard in the sense of science fiction that is based on ‘hard’ fact. This is a novel heavy with details, and delivered with the authenticity of a cast-iron skillet to the head; Poyer uses old literary conventions and archaic spellings of words to give his narrative real historic grounding. The charm this adds distracts the reader from the fact that the story consists of one dismal failure after another for its characters – though such reverses give Eaker a chance to prove his worth. Though this is a novel of the Civil War at sea, and most of the characters are sailors, combat is minimal and occurs mostly on land. The real strife of the novel is between the characters over competing loyalties the Owannee‘s captain and first officer are both southerners, and each are torn between the home they were raised in and the flag they have fought under for so long. The first novel in a trilogy, Fire on the Water impresses most with its detail, and its maritime setting is quite different from most Civil War-related historical fiction.