This week on Down the Stacks, we’ll be looking at something that proved to be surprisingly engaging considering that it was mostly worldbuilding. Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe by James. M. Ward works on the same theme of naval adventure as Honor Harrington, but with magic instead of space travel and far less politics and detailed exposition.
Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe concerns the first naval tour of the eponymous Halcyon Blithe, who is the latest in a long chain of Blithes to serve in the navy of the island nation of Arcania. Fresh from the academy, Halcyon’s first post as a midshipwizard is aboard the Sanguine, one of Arcania’s famous dragonships. Dragonships are sailing vessels built onto literal, living sea dragons, utilizing the dragon’s own skin as part of the hull and tying its rear fins to the tiller. It sounds barbaric, but, assuming the Sanguine is typical of the species, the dragons don’t really mind being turned into ships and actually care about the humans crawling around on them. The fact that the duties for taking care of the ship include feeding the dragon sugar-laced hay and rubbing it down with magical oil probably doesn’t hurt the beast’s opinion.
As a midshipwizard, fifth class, Halcyon is one of the lowest-ranked officers on the ship, and his duties are interspersed with training on all aspects of sailing a ship, fighting in both ship-to-ship and melee situations, being an officer, and of course magic. Over half of the book consists of Halcyon going from duty station to duty station and learning something from an expert in the field, and only after we’ve gotten a solid primer on reading the wind, saber fencing, blast-tube cannons, blast-pikes, “man overboard” situations, and so forth does a traditional plot with life-threatening conflicts emerge in forms of a hurricane, the discovery of a mysterious saboteur on board, and sighting enemy ships in the distance. It is to James Ward’s credit that none of the education chapters drag on tediously and that character development is not neglected at any point.
Ward also deserves credit for keeping his world-building focused almost entirely on Arcania’s navy, because from the conversations characters have and the selections from the navy’s Articles of War that open each chapter imply a world as complex and varied as Dungeons and Dragons. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Ward used D&D or something similar as background, considering how many races are said to exist in the book’s world (elves, dwarves, giants, gnomes, pixies, orcs, ogres, humans, etc.) and the existence of wish magic alongside the hereditary, element-based wizardry that is common enough in Arcania for “midshipwizard” to be a perfectly normal rank in the navy. There’s a complete world full of history and ripe for adventures beyond the deck of the Sanguine, but James Ward keeps the narrative right where it belongs and only brings up the outside world because his characters would naturally refer to such things in their conversation.
Speaking of the characters, the Sanguine’s crew is full of good-humored and competent individuals, and a few grumpy types for flavor. Fellow midshipwizards Dart Surehand and Tupper Haywhen and Senior Chief Petty Officer Ashe Fallow form Halcyon’s primary circle of friendship and support, each looking after the newest middie for their own reasons and bonding through shared duties and mutual dislike of one Lieutenant Hackle, the mean-tempered master of the Midshipwizard wardroom. Halcyon’s training brings him into frequent contact with Captain Olden, a true officer and gentleman who takes pride in teaching the younger officers how to use a saber, First Officer Dire Wily, the intense survivor of many sunken ships, Lieutenant Commander Daton Giantson, the half-giant head wizard on board who has an insatiable curiosity for the new and unusual magical incidents that start occurring near Halcyon, and many others who appear in focus for only a chapter or a few scenes yet still leave an impression on the reader and Halcyon.
Many of the review blurbs attached to the copy of Halcyon Blithe that I read compare the book to Harry Potter and Horatio Hornblower. The front cover has a quote from Publisher’s Weekly declaring “Hogwarts goes to sea!” That is what initially drew me to consider Halcyon, and after reading the book I have to agree. Halcyon Blithe is definitely Hogwarts at sea, moreso than it is Harry Potter at sea because of the heavier emphasis on education and Halcyon’s naval and magical heritage don’t mark him as being quite as special as Harry Potter is among his wizardly peers. As to the Horatio Hornblower comparisons, the best I can say is that is seems to be as much “Hornblower with magic” as Honor Harrington is “Hornblower in Space.”
At this point, it’s clear I need to read some Horatio Hornblower if I’m going to keep picking up books like Halcyon Blithe and Honor Harrington.
Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe is a wonderful piece of high-magic fantasy. The world is well constructed, the characters distinct and interesting, and the writing makes you feel invested in the fate of both Halcyon Blithe and the island nation he serves. If you like maritime fiction or you tried Honor Harrington and wanted something less dense, Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe is your cup of grog.