The Time of Terror is a strongly-written novel that pulls the reader into the world of revolutionary France and Britain's attempts to come to terms with the new republic. Lieutenant Nathan Peake, in command of the brig-sloop Nereus, tracks a smuggler as far as the coast of France only to receive the opening shots of the newly-declared war between Britain and revolutionary France. It is January 1793 and Peake is launched on an adventure which will take him deep into the reign of terror.
Peake's father is a retired admiral; his mother -- half American and half French -- hosts a republican salon in London that boasts such luminaries as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. Who could be more suitable for the Admiralty to send to do its bidding in Paris? Peake, posing as an American merchant captain and aided by the mysterious Gilbert Imlay, finds himself in the company of all the important participants of the Convention. In particular, he is thrust into the conflict between Danton and Robespierre. Given a mission as fluid as the changing times, he variously tries to destroy the French economy, find a faction which will favor peace with England, save Thomas Paine from the guillotine and bring an end to the Terror. He also falls in love with the beautiful widow of a French aristocrat.
Peake travels back and forth between France and England several times, and with each return to his ship comes a naval adventure. One trip brings him aboard Howe's flagship just in time for the Glorious First of June. Hunter handles the naval passages well, and they make for engaging reading, but his passion seems to be for the city of Paris and the labyrinthine politics of France's revolutionary government. Here the descriptions are rich and detailed, the characters fully fleshed out and the terror genuine. From salons to prisons and from the spectacle of the guillotine to the darkness of the catacombs, the reader is treated to a vivid experience of late 18th Century Paris. Still, as most of the book is taken up with action ashore, I would have preferred a more even balance with the naval scenes.
It takes a particularly strong suspension of disbelief to imagine a junior naval officer taken into the confidences of the prime minister and the first lord of the Admiralty (the brothers Pitt) on one side of the Channel, and of Danton, Robespierre and the leaders of the Convention on the other side (not to mention Lord Howe in between). I was happy to go along with these conceits for the sake of the story, but I did feel the stretch. Quibbles aside, no reader of historic naval fiction should miss this book. There is a second novel in the Nathan Peake series, The Tide of War, where the action largely shifts to the New World, and a third volume, The Price of Glory, due for release in July, 2010.
Description of: The Time of Terror
Author: Seth Hunter