Young Sam Witchall convinces his schoolmaster father that he is serious in his longing to go to sea and is allowed to ship aboard a merchant brig. After a near-disastrous brush with a French privateer, he is pressed at sea and finds himself a ship's boy on the frigate HMS Miranda. Sam serves as a powder monkey when the ship goes to quarters, hence the title of the first of Paul Dowswell's young adult series of Historic Naval Fiction. (Dowswell's title is not original; there are at least a dozen novels and a household cleanser of the same name.)

In this first-person narrative, we share Sam's fear and desperation as he comes to realize that there is no escape from Miranda. Sam struggles to come to terms with his terror of battle and harsh naval discipline as well as the bullies and predators who loom out of the below-deck darkness. With the help of the older hands in his mess, he learns his duties and becomes more comfortable with shipboard routine. He realizes that his officers, while draconian, are even-handed and disinterested and can even show humanity on occasion. He steps lightly around lower deck bullies - not always successfully. Sam's fear of the great guns that he and his mates serve slowly abates through repeated drills. Sam survives his first battle and the gunnery practice pays off

Powder Monkey is fast-paced and has enough action to engage grown-ups as well as young adults. Relationships are hugely important to early adolescents and Dowswell is true to this concern as Sam (sometimes to his surprise) works out who his real friends are. Sam's progress aboard Miranda is a high-stakes version of the classic tale of the new boy in school who prevails in the face of demanding teachers and older bullies. Considering his young audience and the fact that the story is told from Sam's point of view, Dowswell may be justified in finessing many details of ship handling, navigation, tactics and so on. Still, he has done his homework and, with only the odd gaffe, he describes Sam's duties accurately. The gunnery passages are particularly well done. He stubs his toe on English grammar and usage a couple of times as well, most amusingly when he states that "...men who are hung lose control of their bladders..." Most encouragingly, Dowswell seems to find his rhythm and voice in the second half of the book. Both the writer and his character develop a good deal through this novel, and I look forward to meeting them again in the next book.

Description of: Powder Monkey

Author: Paul Dowswell

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