In Any Approaching Enemy, Jay Worrall’s second book featuring Captain Charles Edgemont, the young naval officer faces a host of new challenges (both personal and professional) as the war against Napoleon continues to unfold. It is the spring of 1798, and the stakes in the conflict between England and France continue to rise as Napoleon asserts ever more military might on the mainland. Now in command of the 28-gun frigate Louisa, Edgemont is assigned to the Mediterranean fleet of recently promoted Admiral Horatio Nelson. Unfortunately, a violent storm scatters the fleet, and leaves Edgemont and another ship, captained by his good friend and former lieutenant, adrift and uncertain.
Several of the other frigates in the fleet return home, but Edgemont opts to pursue the course he believes Nelson might have taken. He hunts for Nelson — and a mysterious French fleet — the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. In the process, he learns from an English spy that the French hope to smash the British superiority at sea and have constructed this mighty fleet with which to do so. The voyage takes Edgemont and his crew along the Tuscan coast, past the island of Elba, and through a host of sites such as Sicily, Create, Cyprus and more. He is unexpectedly joined by his feisty Quaker wife, Penny, and her friend and companion Molly. Penny traveled alone from England in order to speak with her husband and “manage” his properties.
Juxtaposing Edgemont’s domestic interludes with the rough and rugged life at sea, Worrall’s tale climaxes with what is generally considered to be one of the defining naval battles in history — the Battle of the Nile (often also described as the Battle of Aboukir Bay). Having rejoined Nelson’s fleet, Edgemont will be a principal player, as well as a witness, to the devastation of this key encounter – a battle which, in its own way, set the stage for the rest of the Napoleonic war.
Worrall’s command of historical details and his handling of nautical life justifiably invite comparisons to Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forrester. His Charles Edgemont is a worthy compatriot of Jack Aubrey or Horatio Hornblower, and Worrall cleverly incorporates an homage to each of his predecessors. The uniquely endearing qualities of Worrall’s books, however, are to be found in the warmly human relationship of Edgemont and his wife. She is a devout Quaker; she and Edgemont were married despite the concerns of her family and her many objections to his profession and to the “art of war” itself. It is through Penny that Worrall elevates Edgemont to something other than a cookie-cutter clone of his Age of Sail companions — it is through her “discussions” with him that Edgemont is encouraged to review his life through other eyes.
Edgemont’s encounters with his admittedly free-thinking wife, who envisions everything from the construction of a mill on his estate to a school for the children of his farm tenants, arguably comprise the heart of the book. They suggest that there is something other than war as man’s destiny; they are in turns romantic, humorous, and poignant. When, after Edgemont and his crew rescue her ship from capture by the French, she confronts him about the reality of the “butcher’s bill” he and others describe so euphemistically, we see both the necessity of those involved in combat to dehumanize that which they do and a recognition of the true cost of warfare.
Worrall has managed to successfully combine powerful, dynamic naval action with a meaningful personal relationship that allows him to explore the social culture of Edgemont’s day — from class structures, prostitution, slavery, and the abilities of the “gentler” sex, Edgemont’s perceptions are frequently challenged by his wife and his own experience. Its mixture of deft characterization, playful romantic elements, and realistic, rousing combat make Any Approaching Enemy a worthy addition to the field of nautical fiction.
Also by Worrall:
Sails on the Horizon is the first book in Worrall’s series of naval tales featuring the exploits of young Charles Edgemont. At twenty-five, Edgemont is a second lieutenant aboard the HMS Argonaut. It is 1797, and France and England are at war – indeed, it seems that much of Europe is at war in one respect or another. When a British squadron is confronted by a larger fleet of Spanish ships off the coast of Portugal, the Argonaut is the smallest vessel in the British line. Unfortunately, it also finds itself playing a critical role in the unfolding battle.
When the Spanish ships attempt to escape, the commander of the British squadron orders the Argonaut on a collision course so as to cut off the line of retreat. The crew of the Argonaut find themselves on a suicide run, attempting to slow the Spanish fleet long enough for the rest of the British ships to get into range. Edgemont and his gun crew acquit themselves admirably, but the terrible punishment inflicted by the Spanish guns severely damages Edgemont’s ship and kills both the captain and the first lieutenant. Suddenly thrust into command of the ship, Edgemont refuses to strike his colors despite the overwhelming odds; by holding out for a few more crucial moments, the tide of battle turns.
His conduct results in both a permanent promotion to the command of his own ship but also to a sudden fortune from the prize money associated with several of the captured ships. He returns home to visit the family he hasn’t seen in years, only to learn of his father’s recent death and the financial struggles faced by his brother, who is attempting to save the family estate. During this visit, Edgemont also manages to unceremoniously encounter a young Quaker woman named Penelope Brown. Enchanted by her intelligence and independence, he finds himself falling in love with a woman who categorically abhors his profession and war itself.
Slipping easily between the sea-faring action and the land-locked romance, Worrall fashions a tale of a young man whose perceptions are challenged not just by the crucible of war but by his relationship with an unexpectedly articulate opponent: namely, the woman he wants to marry. It all adds up to a highly entertaining debut, with the promise of many more chronicles to come.