© 2012 John Stack
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!