The Tainted Prize is Margaret Muir’s second book of the Oliver Quintrell series. After sending Captain Quintrell to the bottom of the world in pursuit of Floating Gold, the admiralty is confident in the good captain’s discretion. It is 1803. The Peace of Amiens has collapsed. Captain Quintrell is given command of the frigate HMS Perpetual and is set off on a secret mission to South America to search for a missing frigate and to undertake a diplomatic mission that might impact the outcome of the war with Bonaparte and France. In addition to coping with French corvettes, privateers and slavers, Quintrell and the officers and crew of HMS Perpetual must also face the Southern Ocean and the winding and treacherous Straits of Magellan.
Tainted Prize is refreshing in that it isn’t told strictly from the Olympian perspective of the quarterdeck. We also see the ship through the eyes of fourteen year old Tommy Wainwright, who joins the Perpetual after escaping working in the the coal mines of the north; mines which had killed his sister, his father, and his grandfather, and still haunt the young man’s dreams. As ship’s boy, he shares a mess with, among others, Bungs, an irascible cooper and Eru, a free black sailor from Santo Domingo.
Muir does a fine job at deftly introducing the context of the times without slowing down the story. It is easy to understand why Tommy sees running off to sea as a preferable and arguably safer occupation than crawling down tunnels in a coal mine to set blasting charges. Likewise, the Eru, the black tar, concisely reminds the reader of the slave rebellions in the Caribbean when he tells his own story to his messmates. Muir also vividly communicates the contentious issue and horror of slavery when the the Perpetual discovers a wrecked slave ship in the Straits, where its human cargo was abandoned to die.
Margaret Muir has sailed on square rigged ships and it shows in the authority and ease with which she writes about the HMS Perpetual. The tale is well told, the characters are vivid and believable and the plot is both imaginative and faithful to the history. Highly recommended.