As the first full-length novel in The White Sails Series, DISCERNING GRACE captures the spirit of an independent woman whose feminine lens blows the ordered patriarchal decks of a 19th century tall ship to smithereens.
Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.
Refusing this fate, Grace resolves to stow away. Heading to the docks, disguised as a lad to ease her escape, she encounters smooth-talking naval recruiter, Gilly, who lures her aboard HMS Discerning with promises of freedom and exploration in South America.
When Grace's big mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination, her identity is exposed. The captain wants her back in London but his orders, to chart the icy archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, forbid it. Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam gallantly offers to take Grace off the fretting captain's hands by placing her under his protection.
Grace must now win over the crew she betrayed with her secret, while managing her feelings towards her taciturn protector, whose obstinate chivalry stifles her new-found independence. But when Grace disregards Lieutenant Fitzwilliam's warnings about the dangers of the unexplored archipelago, it costs a friend his life and she realises she is not as free as she believes.
“Come now, m’lad. ’Tis an honest living with a fair wage.”
How quickly one’s future could change. Was it only a few hours ago that Grace Baxter and Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam had spent a quiet moment on a bench underneath the boughs of a chestnut tree in her father’s garden discussing literature? Now she was contemplating running away to sea. But what other option was there? Grace’s father had agreed to a betrothal between herself and the lecherous Lord Silverton. Lord Silverton had already shown his true colours. Grace was determined he would never get another chance to abuse her again. But she had no money, and nowhere to go. The only way out, or so it seemed to Grace, was to disguise herself as a boy, abandon ship and climb into another—a real one this time, HMS Discerning.
How naive Grace had been. Even though her uncle was the esteemed Admiral Arthur Jameson Baxter, hearing about his adventures on the high sea and being part of the crew, Grace soon realised were two profoundly different things altogether. The sailors on board the Discerning were rough, and when provoked, they could be dangerous adversaries. Grace would do well to keep her head down and get on with the day’s work. But how long can she keep up the pretence? And what would happen when Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam discovered that Admiral Arthur Jameson Baxter's beloved niece had become part of the crew?
Discerning Grace (The White Sails) by Emma Lombard is an immensely readable book that is written with an elegant hand and an understanding of what makes history worth reading.
This novel opens at a relatively sedate dinner party, and there is nothing noteworthy or out of the ordinary about it. But by the end of the evening, the protagonist of this novel is compelled to flee from her home and her parents. She knows only what she is fleeing from and has no notion of where she is fleeing too; she is, pardon the pun, all at sea, adrift in a dangerous and strange world with no money and nowhere to go. When all hope seems lost, she chances upon a meeting with Gilly, and Grace realises that when caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea, the sea is probably the better choice to run towards! I really felt for Grace in those opening chapters. She found herself in an utterly deplorable situation, and having suffered such terrible abuse, and the promise of more, her power to think things through rationally is compromised. Her only thought was to escape. And although the obvious choice would have been to seek out her beloved uncle for help, instead, Grace runs to the only true friend she has, Billy. However, even with Billy, she does not feel safe, and this fear makes her incredibly reckless, not only with her own life but also with Billy’s. Her actions at the beginning of the book did fill me with a moment of dread, for I feared that young Billy would end up swinging from a rope, but I could also understand why Grace did what she did. She was utterly desperate. But her decisions that night change the course of her life forever.
Although Discerning Grace is, at the very heart of it, an adventure story, there is also a tender romance that somehow manages to compliment the dangers of the high seas, and a suitor’s revenge. It is also, in a sense, a coming of age story. By stepping back from what society expects from a young woman of her class, Grace discovers a sense of freedom that she never knew existed, and although a cabin boy’s life is not one she would have necessarily chosen for herself, it does give her time to reflect, as well as gain a certain sense of peace and accomplishment—not in her wildest of imaginations would she have thought she would be capable of climbing the rigging and using a musket like the best of them! But here she was. Grace dared to stir the waters, which started a chain of events that would end in a perfect storm—both literally and emotionally. I enjoyed watching Grace’s character develop as this story progressed. She is a feisty woman, who despite fleeing from her own abusive situation, is not cowed into calling out injustice that she witnesses to other people, despite what that might mean for her. It is only when her true identity is thus revealed that Grace reverts back, be it somewhat reluctantly, into the lady she was brought up to be. However, her independent nature, and her sometimes devil-may-care attitude is never far from the surface. Her time as a cabin boy does impact on her life and the way she sees things.
Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam is the essence of a naval officer—he expects to be obeyed by those under him, but he is answerable to the ship's captain, and even though that captain is indisposed for most of this story, Seamus wields his authority with the utmost of care. His feelings towards Grace are at first one of duty, but the more time he spends with her, the more he begins to care. Grace and Seamus’ courtship was really beautiful to behold.
One of my favourite characters in this novel was Lambert “Gilly” McGilney. Gilly is a hardened sailor, but he is also a fair man, and although he is initially shocked when he discovers Grace’s true identity, he becomes not only her dearest friend but her most loyal defender. I thought Gilly was wonderfully portrayed. He was as rough as they come, but he was also compassionate and kind.
The historical detailing of this novel has to be commended. It is extremely obvious that Lombard has taken a great deal of time to research this era before she set pen to paper. Her depictions of life onboard a ship and her understanding of the society shone through in the crystalline prose.
Discerning Grace (The White Sails) by Emma Lombard is an engaging and utterly compelling novel. At times it reminded me of Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine’s Black Sails. I am looking forward to Book 2 of what promises to be a an extremely engaging series.
I Highly Recommend.
The Coffee Pot Book Club