Captain’s Surrender by Alex Beecroft
Review by Lee Benoit.
Cross-posted from Rainbow Reviews
TITLE: Captain's Surrender
AUTHOR: Alex Beecroft
PUBLISHER: Linden Bay Romance
Ambitious and handsome, Joshua Andrews had always valued his life too much to take unnecessary risks. Then he laid eyes on the elegant picture of perfection that is Peter Kenyon.
Soon to be promoted to captain, Peter Kenyon is the darling of the Bermuda garrison. With a string of successes behind him and a suitable bride lined up to share his future, Peter seems completely out of reach to Joshua.
But when the two men are thrown together to serve during a long voyage under a sadistic commander with a mutinous crew, they discover unexpected friendship. As the tension on board their vessel heats up, the closeness they feel for one another intensifies and both officers find themselves unable to rein in their passion.
Let yourself be transported back to a time when love between two men in the British Navy was punishable by death, and to a story about love, about honor, but most of all, about a Captain’s Surrender.
Thrilling! On every level, Captain’s Surrender is thrilling. Alex Beecroft spins image, voice, character, setting, and story into a captivating whole, accomplishing the rare feat of inducing in the reader a forgetfulness that we are, indeed, reading.
The publisher’s description above gives a good sense of the plot outline, but a ripping yarn is only the beginning of the delights of the book. For one thing, Beecroft, with a minimum of unnecessary exposition, transports us into her settings ~ the British Navy, Britain’s New World colonies ~ and uses them to excellent effect. In the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, the turmoil and uncertainty of Britain’s naval antagonisms threaten to undo her empire, and this upheaval becomes a frame for the turmoil and uncertainty of Joshua’s, and especially Peter’s, internal struggles, and for the unceasing awareness that their love for each other is a risk of the mortal sort. Beecroft chooses her images well, taking a ‘less is more’ approach to setting. For example, a cannon pressed into service as a clothes-horse beautifully describes shipboard realities; later in the story, Peter’s awareness of his presence among Indians is drawn with tiny details of scent and touch and color.
In contrast to the impressionistic grace of imagery and setting stands the muscularity of Beecroft’s characterizations. This quality is inseparable from the most technically impressive element of the book: Beecroft’s deftly rendered, varied perspective. She deploys no fewer than a half-dozen voices, telling her story from points of view reflecting every possible constituency of her story. The voices are male and female, young and old, highborn and low. Secondary characters are drawn as fully and with as much understatement as the settings, and the addition of voices beyond the protagonists’ adds depth and texture to the story. In particular I appreciated the voice of Mr. Summersgill, a landed gentleman on his way to a high-ranking position in Bermuda’s colonial government. He could easily have been a caricature of the minor nobility, or of the colonial lackey, but Beecroft gives him a distinct personality and conflict to lay alongside those of the protagonists. In one memorable moment early in the story, Summersgill is called upon to act heroically, a call he responds to with the following reflections: “Heroism at his age?” and, “The realm of sudden death and glory had never appealed, even when he was young.” The fact that Peter, alight with righteous, mutinous purpose, remains oblivious to Summersgill’s internal struggle throws both characters, central and peripheral, into vivid relief.
By far the most vivid characters are Joshua Andrews and Peter Kenyon. They bring distinct backgrounds and personalities to the story, and are so excellently drawn that the reader is helpless to remain detached. For my money, Josh is the more readily sympathetic, possessed of a “dark and rather Celtic” mien leavened with sharply self-deprecating humor. He’s fully internalized the prevailing view that men who love men are depraved and dangerous, and his attempts to protect Peter from that danger and depravity are simultaneously charming and wrenching. He exalts classical homoeroticism in his imagination, but is appalled by his own contradictory feelings (his reaction to Peter’s punishment at the behest of their sadistic captain is almost worth the cover price all by itself). He accepts his attraction, admiration, and eventually love for Peter, but as evidence of his unworthiness, so that balks at going further, even when he can’t help himself (a confluence of motivation that leads to one of the very best unreciprocated kisses I’ve ever read). It takes a sojourn within an alien culture to enlighten him that his own nature may represent strength rather than weakness (and it is to Beecroft’s credit that American indigenes are presented unsentimentally and without the ethnocentric stink of “noble savagery”). Is it Josh’s surrender that gives the book its title? Perhaps; he surrenders in a most literal fashion, during battle, and it is that surrender that charts the course for his fuller self-acceptance (or, perhaps better put, his ability to embrace the potential of true love with Peter, since his self-acceptance prior to his surrender amounted to a miserable sense of his own wrongness).
Or, perhaps, the title refers to Peter’s surrender. It’s more subtle and nuanced, for all that Peter himself is less so as a character. His is a more sanguine personality, confident in his abilities, secure in his senses of self and duty. His sexual interest in Josh is driven initially by curiosity rather than passion, and his innocence of his power in the relationship makes him seem callow and thickheaded at times. Do not read this as a criticism. Beecroft draws Peter as worthy of Josh’s affection, capable of learning, incorruptible in duty but rather windblown in love. I wanted to thump him on more than one occasion, which is just testament to his authenticity as a character. In one especially perfect passage, Peter responds almost blithely to an interruption, thinking, “it would be a long time before ‘disturbing a superior officer’s experiment with buggery’ would be a reportable offense.” He is eminently believable for his time and place in the world, and his treatment of his relationship with Josh as necessarily temporary, little more than a game, sets us up to experience his capitulation as a true surrender, no less sublime in its way than Joshua’s. We cheer his development as much as we do Josh’s, for it brings them to the point where the happily ever after ending is satisfying and convincing.
If Beecroft’s prose occasional serves up angst slathered on with a broad knife, it’s accompanied by such organic period detail, such tightly rendered characters, such naturalistic dialogue, and such a healthy dose of truly gripping adventure, that we lap it up like middies coming off short rations. I said at the beginning of this review that Captain’s Surrender thrilled me. It satisfied a craving I’ve had for decades, for a certain kind of book, the kind that’s so seldom written it’s an almost violent surprise when one crosses my path. It drilled right down to the bedrock of my psyche, dug out that part of me that whiled away childhood afternoons with elaborate seagoing, swashbuckling epic fantasies, then set it in the sunshine beside my adolescent longing for a more bent, more tolerant world. Add to that damned good writing to satisfy an adult self with high standards and broad tastes, and you’ve got a keeper. And something to recommend with impunity.