Richard Spilman’s Hell Around the Horn is set at the turn of the twentieth century in one of the last windjammers to make the perilous passage about Cape Horn. It follows the progress of the Lady Rebecca as she takes on cargo and crew at Tiger Bay, before setting out for her eventual destination in far away Chile. The subsequent story is one of peril and hardship, brought about by the atrocious weather conditions and a fair degree of human mischief, and is told through the eyes of all on board, be they fresh or seasoned hands, young “brassbounders,” senior officers, or even the captain’s family. It is a gritty tale: no blue wave lapped sandy beaches here, just an excellent recreation of what is takes to round the Horn under sail, along with a better understanding of those who chose to do so. This is true historical fiction: a genuine “feel” for the time is portrayed, with interesting nuggets of information about the social conditions and descriptions of the contemporary sailing methods and gear.
In fact that is where the magic lies; Spilman’s love and knowledge of the subject is obvious, with facts and technical detail blending well into the story. In much historical fiction the “tell all you know” trap is common and snares many writers, allowing good storylines to be buried beneath a mass of intricate and unnecessary detail. In Hell Around the Horn this is not the case: at no time is the reader bombarded with ostentatious data or obscure jargon. Instead they are sensibly informed, and gently led through a complex world by a competent and knowledgeable hand. Being entertained, rather than involuntarily educated is a far more pleasant experience, and the whole process is rather akin to sailing with a trusted sea daddy.
Hell Around the Horn is also different from a lot of historical nautical fiction in that is has no need to rely on vicious sea battles and heroic boarding actions for excitement; more than enough is provided by the character interaction: and what characters they are! The inevitable good, bad and doubtful types are well represented with some of the more prominent players being fascinatingly complex, while the ever-present and commonly hostile sea provides a further enemy just as bewitching as any human villain.
Spilman’s style is light and readable; the story has an excellent pace that will appeal to a wide variety of readers, and should certainly not be pigeon-holed as mere sailing fiction. In brief; a much neglected period of sailing history is brought to life by Spilman’s fast-moving narrative and apt use of fact and detail. Highly recommended.