Lieutenant Hieronymus Bonaventure serves as second in command on the HMS Fortitude in the days of dominance of the British Empire. As the Fortitude sails the tropical Pacific, it encounters a Spanish Galleon, and the somewhat inept captain is determined to capture its cargo. During the battle, a formidable storm sweeps both ships off course and into uncharted waters. With limited supplies, the crippled Fortitude must seek out the unknown in order to survive – leading to the discovery of a paradise, and the darkness nearby.
The narrative is really a pretty simple tale of nineteenth-century adventure: naval battle, undiscovered island, first contact with natives living in paradise, exotic women, leave-takings, unnecessary battle against dark and unknown forces, pyrrhic victory and survival for some. This blunt breakdown of the story is not intended imply that it’s an uninteresting one, or that it’s not worth reading – it’s well told and gains strength as it progresses – but, it is just the frame. The filling is the afore-mentioned and aptly-named Hieronymus, deridingly known as Hero by a sarcastic midshipman.
Roberson shows the making of a special kind of person, a leader of men, a lover, an adventurer, a nineteenth-century Odysseus and the first half of his Odyssey. Through flashbacks we periodically visit the childhood and early manhood of Hieronymus, son of a scholar, dreaming of adventure, seeking and receiving the tutelage of an accomplished swordsman, who has lived his own life of adventure. Young Hieronymus contrasts with his older self, Lt. Bonaventure, having experienced some of that adventure in the service of duty for King and Country, yet somehow managing to not live life in the spirit of adventure he craved as a child. His excitement and education at the discovery of an island and its people are tempered as the implications are fully realized. He learns of love, cultural shock, and consequences – he glimpses his future from a shaman and doesn’t have the courage to stop the mistake he knows his captain will make.
Set the Seas on Fire is a fun and satisfying adventure through the South Seas. Most correctly shelved as historical fiction, fantastical elements are almost an afterthought where native myth comes alive, meeting the captain’s folly. While succeeding overall, a few minor issues gave me a bit of grief. In an effort at setting a nostalgic feel, Roberson uses the seeming old-fashioned language of the nineteenth century which I found difficult to get into at first, although, by mid-way through the book I didn’t notice it anymore. Some awkward pacing occurs do to the use of flashbacks as things slow down significantly. This is entirely intentional and appears to be an effort to take a step back, breath deeply and get to know Hieronymus a bit better before moving on. The success is a bit mixed, but aids to a building of anticipation and the desire to know what will come next.
As I’ve said above, Set the Seas on Fire is a highly enjoyable novel, good story, and great view of an interesting character. But, through it all, I’m left with the sense of missing something important. And that is precisely the case because while it stands well on its own, Set the Seas on Fire is a prequel, and it appears that the meat of the story, the second (and more interesting) half of the Odyssey, occurs in Paragaea, which I haven’t had the opportunity to read. So, while I can recommend Set the Seas on Fire as a fun nineteenth-century adventure, I think that it just might need Paragaea to truly complete it. 6.5-7/10