A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail. A book by friend, and writer Mark Murphy Harms, author of the time travel/ military strategy and tactics thriller Delivered to the Ground. This one, Dark Waters, The Voyage of the Bar Jack, is a sea adventure not yet for sale at your local book dealer. I got a coveted early read (this sort of surprise feels special.) A note from the author, tucked inside, explained that it was a first draft and requested feedback on a few questions:
Are the characters interesting?
Is the story enjoyable?
Does it capture at least some flavor of the time period?
To briefly summarize: the story is about Sir James LeRoque, from a Scottish family of means, who embarks on a search for a ship lost at sea, the HMS Squirrel, in the early 19th century. The Squirrel’s mission, among other objectives, had been to locate a mysterious (and possibly valuable) substance called anitite. On board the Squirrel was LeRoque’s friend, Dr. Paul Seymour, the scientist who discovered, and had been experimenting with anitite. (Once, in Dr Seymour’s lab, LeRoque had witnessed strange and mysterious reactions of the substance when combined with lab elements. It seemed to swirl into images associated with his own thoughts!) Imagining the cognitive and perceptual possibilities, Seymour was keen on finding more of the stuff for his experiments. But the Squirrel went off the radar, and with it, so did the entire crew. As a friend, LeRoque was determined to either rescue the living crew members, recover the ship, or to at least learn what happened if neither of the former nor the latter were possible.
To accomplish this task, LeRoque acquired a second-hand ship called the Bar Jack. His plan was to restore it to its prime condition and sail it to the Squirrel’s last known whereabouts. This was somewhere near Southern Mexico, where Seymour felt certain he could find more anitite. It was also where a volcano known as El Radio was faulted for causing no end of climactic turbulence. (Could it be that the turbulent sea and the origins of anitite were related?)
Speaking of turbulence, in 1819 the world is in Commotion. Europe is at unrest both politically and economically following the Napoleonic wars. Americans are at war with the Indians as they claim Western North America. War has decimated the workforce. In England, determined to put a crew together for this search mission, LeRoque recruits all the able bodies he can find. And what he can find are women. Upon learning of a famous female pirate on death row for her pirating crimes, LeRoque uses his family’s name and resources to post bond for Ann Rackham with the aim of hiring her as his sailing master. As a prisoner, Ann’s choice is to sail LeRoque’s ship into a possible El Radio death mission, or await her execution in the stockade. She takes the sailing job needless to say. Her criminal background adds good drama to the story, an unpredictable element. (Harms effectively builds this flavor into many of the characters and their relationships to each other).
After finding his first mate, a gruff but pragmatic war veteran named Leopold Von Sydow, LeRoque attends to hiring the rest of the crew. This is easier than anticipated. In that time, women’s only choice in life was some sort of servitude – wife, maid, or prostitute. LeRoque, and his adventure, gave them the chance at something beyond merely existing. They come out in droves to apply for jobs as sailors.
And finally, Sophie rounds out the crew. Sophie was LeRoque’s cousin’s Louisa’s servant. Louisa claimed to have telepathic powers with Sophie, and though doubtful, LeRoque had seen a convincing demonstration of ESP between the two of them firsthand. For protection, Louisa sent Sophie to participate on the mission. And LeRoque consented, for that reason among others (Sophie’s hot!), to bring her along on this “Fools Errand” (the title of the first chapter).
The first few chapters of The Voyage of the Bar Jack sets up the story, the assemblage of the crew, and the process of getting the ship in shipshape. It’s good reading. The story moves along, the dialogue is engaging, and there is humor and intrigue. The reader understands there will be sailing, adventure, mystery, perhaps a little danger, and likely some dark magic. And away you go to Barbados, Jamaica, Galveston, Mexico, and beyond. Ann and her badass all female crew will take you on a wild ride and you are in for some fantastic reading.
I’ve said this about the author’s writing before, but I’ll say it again – It’s for readers. Harms is a good storyteller and getting better. Characters are interesting. Relationships are intriguing. Physically, the book is a good size. The Chapters have titles that move the story along and make it easy to go back and visit details. Harms continues to play with time and history and the important introduction of weapons and battle strategies. For example, in Dark Waters, the Bar Jack makes a visit to Galveston before heading south and the crew meets up with Jim Bowie, a Texan firebrand, former soldier, current slave smuggler, and a real historical figure. Fiction meets history when Captain LeRoque suggests an upturn in the blade for the knife Bowie is engineering. The knife, of course, will become the famous Bowie knife. These little “easter eggs” make for fun “aha” moments in an already fun-filled read.
How could this story be better!? Well, I’ll tell you…. Illustrations would be great. A map of the route on the inside cover. A drawing hinting of the action to take place on every chapter heading page. Maybe even a graphic novel version of the story for self-professed graphic novel nerds. Oh, and fewer snakes. Okay, there. I spoiled it. There are snakes. More than one. And they are big (especially one of them) and they are the stuff of nightmares (Not cool, Mark). But they are not the only scary beasts in the book.
Once again, Harms has written a completely engaging story fitting for any fiction lover.
Pick it up as soon as you can. And if you can’t find it…I know a guy.