Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review: A Watery Grave by Joan Druett (Wiki Coffin #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fascinating characters with a decent story
Cons: Historical detail and back story needed to be better incorporated.
The Bottom Line:
Too historical
Once plot starts, interesting
And great characters

Join the Expedition with Wiki Coffin

Sometimes you just stumble on a good book. Such is the case with A Watery Grave, the first Wiki Coffin book by Joan Druett. I spotted a volume in the series at my local library. I decided the series sounded like fun, so I grabbed this one. And I really enjoyed it.

The book is set at the beginning of the United States Exploring Expedition, which took place from 1838 to 1842. This is a chapter in American history I didn't even know existed before. The ships set out from America, traveled to the South Seas and Antarctica before returning to the Northern Hemisphere and charting the coasts of Oregon and Washington.

Since the book was set during a real event, it is populated with real and fictional characters. Like most of the cast, Wiki is one of the fictional characters. He is half New Zealander and half American. He is hired to be a linguist for the expedition and spends most of his time on the fictitious eighth ship created specifically for this series.

The morning the expedition is set to launch, Wiki Coffin finds himself waiting on shore. When shots ring out, he thinks he is the target. Instead, the target is a row boat floating down the river. The occupant of the boat is already dead from a broken neck, however. She is the wife of one of the expedition's astronomers.

Wiki is briefly accused of the crime, but the sheriff quickly realizes that couldn't be. He's able to rejoin the expedition before it completely launches. But when another death occurs not too long into the voyage, Wiki begins to suspect a connection between the two. Is there a killer on board? Can Wiki find him?

You can always tell when an author has chosen to write about something they know well. In this case, Joan Druett is a nautical historian with several non-fiction books to her credit. As a result, the nautical detail is wonderful. That's both a blessing and a curse, however. At times, the terms are thrown at us so fast it's almost impossible to follow what she is describing. It would have been helpful if these terms were defined somewhere in the book, but there isn't even a glossary. A couple of times, the plot slowed down so that we could get a detailed view of an aspect of life on board these ships. While those eventually came into play, it did slow the book down a little too much at the time.

I know, I know, I'm criticizing a historical mystery for the historical detail.

In reality, that was the only bad part of the book. I loved the characters. I was drawn to Wiki immediately. He's a strong character with strengths and flaws. And his mixed heritage gives us a great window into the American culture of the time. The author manages to create quite a few ironic scenes that ultimately jab slightly at the civilized world of America. The rest of the characters were equally as well drawn. Even the minor characters were memorable.

One small complaint about the characters. The story slows down at times to give us the back story on Wiki and his best friend George Rochester, also on the expedition. Some of it is fun and relevant. But some of it has no place in this book.

As you can probably guess already, the plot suffered from pacing issues related to the character background and historical detail. That aside, I loved it. The twists kept me confused until the end, although I did figure a few of them out beforehand. And let me tell you, the climax had my heart racing even though I was sure I knew how it would end.

It's probably my love of history and the sea, but I really enjoyed A Watery Grave. Yes, it had pacing issues I hope disappear as the author gets a better handle on fiction writing. But I will definitely be making a second voyage with Wiki Coffin.

Follow the adventures of Wiki and the Exploring Expedition by reading the Wiki Coffin Mysteries in order.

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