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Set the Seas on Fire by Chris Roberson
Review by John Berlyne
Solaris Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781844164882
Date: 31 July 2007 List Price £9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Uncorrected Proof Copy : The prequel to Chris Roberson's Paragaea - a hugely enjoyable pulpish adventure that I reviewed in our April 2006 edition.

Roberson's love of those stirring adventures of old underpins this work too, as our wonderfully named hero Lieutenant Hieronymous Bonaventure and his crew find themselves run aground upon a previously uncharted island where ".... an encounter with the island's natives leads to the discovery of a dark and terrible secret that lurks behind the island's veneer of beauty..."

Back in our August 2006 issue I reviewed Chris Roberson's Paragea: A Planetary Romance, a fine, well executed nostalgic piece of science fiction flimsy in which Roberson deftly drew together some of the best elements of old-time SF and in doing so reminded a new generation of readers of what the 'Golden Age' truly was.

A major protagonist of Paragea was one First Lieutenant Hieronymous Bonaventure, in that novel a character displaced in time and space and very far from his home on the high seas serving in the British navy in the early nineteenth century. And Bonaventure is now the focus of Roberson's 'new' novel, Set The Seas on Fire , a prequel to the events taking place in Paragea, and indeed a piece written before that previous (subsequent!) novel. Indeed, for a while during the marketing of Paragea, this earlier work was available as a download from the author's web site (no longer, note!), however this new print edition, released as a smart trade paperback by Solaris is a substantially reworked version of that story, with Roberson providing around 30,000 words of extra material.

Compared to the zig-zagging, wild science fictional adventures of Paragea, the plot of this prequel work is notably far more streamlined and far, far darker. Bonaventure is a young officer very much in the mould of Hornblower, serving on a ship under a captain of dubious ability. His character is narrowly defined and with no real surprises (perhaps with the exception of his implied atheism) – very much stiff upper lip, an officer respected by his underlings and peers whilst being mildly downtrodden by his masters. At the start of the book, Bonaventure dutifully follows orders as his ship is directed to chase down a Spanish galleon so that his Captain can claim her as a prize. The battle is fierce and though damaged, the galleon outruns them. Bonaventure's ship is damaged too however, and it is clear that unless they are able to make landfall soon and begin repairs, their survival will be in question. Consulting the maps, they find they are too far away from known landmasses – their only option then is to sail into the uncharted seas - mare incognita - in the hope that they come across one of the islands believed to be present there.

After some weeks they do indeed find their island refuge, but as they cautiously approach (the memory of Captain Cook's brutal demise at the hands of natives is still fresh in the navy's collective memory) they come across a launch with two Europeans on board – Spaniards. One is near death, but the other relates a chilling story about the fate of his fellow crew – for it they are indeed from the crippled galleon that Bonaventure's ship was chasing.

Set The Seas On Fire does not engage the reader in the same way that Paragea did – it is a far more evenly paced work and consequently lacks the unpredictable element of its sequel (not necessarily a criticism, this). That said it admirably provides the very story elements one desires in this kind of novel – not least an exotic tropical island setting that, underneath a veneer of verdant flora and beautiful naked native women, harbours threatening and unfathomable dark spirits that will crush and corrupt the sceptical white man. Bonaventure himself – a paean of empire and empiricism is sorely challenged during his time on the island, his British reserve shattered by experiences both physical and spiritual, but takes a good while for Roberson to throw his fantastical elements into the story – dark and strange things are hinted at obliquely, but we must wait to experience them. This notwithstanding, Set The Seas on Fire adds another very competent and confident story to Roberson's ever-growing, increasingly impressive interconnected cannon – one can expect more from the characters one has met in this novel, and not necessarily in the same kind of setting.

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