Winds Of Marque: Blackwood & Virtue by Bennett Coles

A team within the space equivalent of the navy are sent on an undercover mission, disguised as merchants, to stop pirates. If they succeed, they will receive riches and, if they fail, the rest of the navy will hunt them down.

Liam Blackwood is an executive officer in the navy. Having just come back from a mission that nearly got the crew killed, severely damaged their spaceship and is set to damage his reputation, he is offered an opportunity to take on a very special mission. Glad for the opportunity to escape the boredom of waiting for the spaceship to be repaired and possible damage to his reputation, he accepts.

Amelia Virtue is offered the opportunity to be promoted to a senior role, if she moves ship, so she accepts.

Can the crew of Daring, disguised as a merchant spaceship, destroy the pirates or will they be removed from the navy and hunted down as though they were pirates themselves?

This book has a very military feel. It certainly grounds the reader in the navy. It’s fairly interesting in terms of the plot, but significantly interfered with characterisation.

The plot is generally fairly engaging, with a balance of action and strategy and problem solving that, for the most part, serves the book well. There is one very good plot twist, that I did not foresee, which is very well delivered.

The world-building is delivered as and when it is needed for the plot. While this does leave the reader with only a limited knowledge of the world, I think it serves the story well for the most part because there was more time and space to focus on the mission and some of the twists worked well without the reader having much knowledge of the world.

Liam and Amelia are fairly engaging characters in some ways, however they are extremely under-developed, as are the rest of the cast. There is a sub-plot of romance between them, which just feels like a convenient plot device. I think it may be aimed at providing characterisation, through romantic tensions sub-plot, but it actually ends up just highlighting the characterisation issues in the book even more.

Most of the story is told from Liam’s perspective as the executive officer. I think this may have been done because, as executive officer, he has more say in the mission, nevertheless I think it was the wrong choice. I definitely think his perspective is engaging and important, but there are many scenes, particularly between Amelia and Liam but also, more generally, that I think should have been from Amelia’s perspective or someone else’s entirely.

While Liam is the executive officer, his senior position as well as his social background as a noble, make him far removed from the experiences and perspectives of the crew. While navigating this was interesting, I think having more perspectives of different characters would have enhanced the story. There are a lot of occasions where we learn about what the crew are getting up to from Liam’s comments about morale or disciplinary procedures. Again, it would have been nice to witness more of what the crew were experiencing from having more perspectives, especially those of lower rank.

Group dynamics are pretty much non-existent, as a result of the formal military attitude, which infiltrates even the most informal situations and characters’ internal thoughts. This, I think, is ultimately the biggest barrier to characterisation.

There are also a lot of issues in the world that should be explored more in characterisation and character relationships that are touched upon but not explored or addressed very much. For example, there is a significant amount of prejudice in terms of class. People in higher classes are generally privileged in the military and the rules of disciplinary procedures are generally not enforced as harshly. Amelia is from a considerably lower class than Liam and his understanding of what her life has been like is extremely limited and his ability to understand some of what she has experienced is limited. Similarly, there is also a lot of mistreatment of women which again is mostly told from Liam’s perspective and I think it should be split so that we got more of Amelia’s perspective on what she experiences. While Liam does acknowledge some of the issues, he’s very quick to move on. It could be argued that again this is his background, but I still think that could have been examined more and it’s yet another instance where I think more viewpoint characters could have helped.

There’s quite a bit of racism which again is touched upon, but is kind of just taken as a fact of life. There’s also one disabled character, who other characters casually have discriminatory attitudes towards that aren’t challenged at all.

This book doesn’t handle its main characters with intricacy and nuance and it does an even worse job with its attitude towards and representation of groups that are marginalised by society.

It’s the first in a series, but I really think it should be a standalone. My initial reaction was that I thought the story had run its course but, the more I think about it the more I realise it’s because the characters are too under-developed for me to want to follow them on another adventure. The initial intrigue that the plot of this book created as well as the introduction of a new world and characters has beyond ran its course for me. Judging by the ending, I have some fairly solid ideas about what the plot of the sequel will be like and suspect it will become repetitive and subsequently boring, extremely quickly.

Overall, it was an okay book, but it could have been a lot better. If you enjoy books with a military perspective, narratives with a focus on a mix of strategy and action or have read pirate books before and would be interested in a military take on that, then it may be worth a read.

Rebecca Thorne

March 2019

(pub: Harper Voyager. 368 page paperback. Price: $16.99 (US), £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-06282-035-8)

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