© 2012 John Stack
400 pages

It is the 16th century, and a crisis looms for England.  Spain, who thanks to the plunder of the New World and its Hapsburg connections, is Europe’s heavyweight and the declared enemy of England, threatens war. Spanish armies stand just across the Channel, occupying Holland, and a massive fleet has sailed from Iberia to help cover and transport that invading army to a land which has not known a conqueror’s boots in five hundred years.  The force from without may have assistance from within, as persecuted Catholics look to Madrid for salvation. In the center of this drama is Robert Varian, a secret Catholic whose father was said to have died in exile following defeat in a rebellion decades ago.  Robert’s father Nathaniel is quite alive, however, and from Spain he has helped organize the forthcoming invasion.  If Robert could be convinced to aide his father and provide intelligence on the gathering English fleet,  he could very well pave the way to Spanish victory and the restoration of the Faith in England.  But matters are far from simple.  A recusant Robert may be, but he is an Englishman who loves his Queen — but does he love her more than his father?  As the hours draw the two massive forces closer to conflict, desperate attempts in England to root out a potential spy dot the landscape with death, and two missions converge in the same running battle as the English fleet and a fickle wind fight fiercely against the armed might and brazen ambition of the Dons.

Robert Varian dominates the lead here in a way  John Stack’s other hero, Atticus, never did. Although there is an ensemble of other viewpoint characters, one of whom is his principle Spanish rival, this is Robert’s story.  Happily, then, he’s a likable fellow; conflicted, but devoted to his faith, his country, and the memory of  his father. He thrives as a warrior in an age of changing seamanship; sailors might pack primitive muskets and fire cannons instead of cutlasses and arrows, but cannons have begun their conquest of the naval scene. While the Spanish still rely heavily on boarding and hacking away,  the English have begun to experiment with using cannon alone to wear down the enemy. It is a tactic that will serve them in good stead during the battle itself, and give the Spanish captain Morales no end of grief. He wants desperately to take down Varian, a man who took his ship but spared his life in a raid, but how can he if the English do not consent to letting their graceful gunships be bludgeoned down by massive galleons? So Varian wrestles with both his conscience and the Spanish, working out the question of how he can be true to his faith, his father, and his country.  His love for both England and the church contrasts with the fanaticism of those on either side working against him, both Puritans in England and holy warriors in Spain.

The story of the Armada’s protracted fight against the English fleet, unfolding over the course of several days, is told largely through the repeated brawls between Varian and his Spanish counterpart’s ships, climaxing with a frantic duel aboard a burning ship.  It’s a strange story, both because of the in-flux state of naval war, transitioning from ancient to modern methods, and because of the way it ends. The Spanish Armada is not destroyed, and neither is the English fleet;  they fight and go home. Stack’s historical note comments that it was fortunate for England that the Spanish regarded themselves as spent, for the English fleet was driven to exhaustion as well, and this attitude reflects itself in the story, in that the Spanish lead is driven to despair over his loss even as the English captains are worrying about what the morrow will bring.  Varian, at least, gets most of his ends tidied up, though parts of the ending seem to be begging for a sequel.  It’s a slight blemish, however, and if Stacks does more work in this period, so much the better off are we readers!

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
This entry was posted in historical fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Armada

  1. James says:

    Another great review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about what sounds like some interesting history.

  2. CyberKitten says:

    I'm looking forward to reading this – around November/Christmas time I think…

    The defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of those defining events in British history. Before it we were a middling powerful nation off the coast of Europe. Not long afterwards we were a regional power to be reckoned with. Not long after that we were a regional super-power on our way to becoming a real global player.

    Although the battle was technically a tactical draw it was a strategic victory for the English because we had basically prevented the greatest power of the day from exercising its will in the way it wanted and although there was a lot of worry on the English side we had technology, tactics and history on our side. Most of the so-called invasion fleet was in a pretty bad state to begin with and, as you rightly said, showed how naval forces used to be – rather than how they would be – which was exemplified by the new lighter, faster and much more agile English craft. It wasn't a forgone conclusion by any chance (and could have gone badly if the Spanish had managed to land) but wasn't quite the David & Goliath match its often portrayed to be.

  3. Stephen says:

    My understanding of the battle(s) until now bordered on the mythic…I had heard there were a small number of English ships against a great Spanish horde, and that the horde was broken up by a Protestant wind, that sort of thing. Your account goes well with Stack's own rendering, both in fiction and in his factual afterword. I may wind up reading Mattingly's history of the Armada, though I should knock out a classic or two first. My Read of England theme has so far been limited to Read of 16th Century England!

  4. CyberKitten says:

    Yup, apparently a great storm scattered the Armada at a particularly fortunate moment…. I guess that God wasn't a Catholic that day.

    The English were indeed heavily outnumbered which helped to hone their hit and run, nibble at the edges, tactics that drove the Spanish captains mad.

    Maybe next time Stack can tackle Jutland. That was an interesting naval battle that we both won and kind of lost… [grin]

  5. CyberKitten says:

    LOL – I have the 'Leroy Jenkins' achieve on WoW…. and all of my characters (16 of them) have Jenkins as a 'surname'.

  6. Stephen says:

    Is WoW still fairly active these days? I've never tried my hand at a MMO — I dislike monthly fees. Kind of curious, though…I used to like staying up too late blowing up strangers. (Mostly getting shot, though, since back then I had a 56K and broadband was already standard setup for gamers..)

  7. Brian Joseph says:

    I really need to read Cline’s novels. I think that this book will be right up my ally. I think that I would have also missed the Wargames reference but I think that it is awesome.

  8. R. T. Davis says:

    I might try this one ….thanks …. btw …. bad brain waves scuttled my blog ….thus … new digs …. here ….

  9. CyberKitten says:

    WoW has a lot less subscribers than in its heyday but there's still quite a few people playing it. I said that I'd never 'rent' a game but I tried it free years ago (after much hassling from friends) and have been playing it ever since.

  10. James says:

    This sounds like a good choice for my SF book group. We enjoyed Ready Player One and we are currently reading Lock In by Scalzi.

  11. Stephen says:

    Wargames was a BIG part of Ready Player One, so Cline must really like it.

  12. Stephen says:

    @James I will look forward to any comments you post on Scalzi's book. That particular title strikes me as much different than Redshirts — a little unnerving, actually.

  13. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the update! I will edit my blogroll once I return home later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s