Joan Druett’s Judas Island, the first book of her Promise of Gold trilogy, is a delightful mix of nautical adventure, romance and droll comedy.
In the novel, Harriet Gray, an eighteen year old British actress, finds herself abandoned on the deck of the brig Gosling, a ship whose ownership is unclear and which is under the command of Jake Dexter, a captain who technically may be a pirate, even if he does not think of himself as such. The crew is a motley band of treasure seekers, now highly distracted by the lovely young actress who stands before them. The Gosling is anchored off the brooding Judas Island. Captain Dexter and his crew are trying to unravel the island’s mysteries and find the treasure that is rumored to be be hidden somewhere on its shores, although to no avail. Harriet impetuously buys her way into the band of adventurers and induces them to sail to Valparaiso in search of her brother, who is rounding up a herd of alpaca, which she promises the crew will bring them all riches.
What makes this novel such fun is that it is quite different from much of nautical fiction and yet feels wholly authentic. Joan Druett has written over 20 books of both nautical fiction and non-fiction, and has won multiple awards for her histories. Among other things, Druett is an authority on women at sea in the 19th century. Whereas in most nautical fiction, women are either loyal wives, mistresses or prostitutes, Harriet Gray is a resourceful young woman making her way under difficult conditions in a dangerous world, both at sea and ashore. No less fascinating is Captain Jake Dexter, out to seek his fortune after being betrayed by his employer and the woman he loved. The sparks of both attraction and repulsion between these two strong and vividly drawn characters will be entertaining to see develop over the next two books of the trilogy.
One other wonderful aspect of the novel is the dry humor throughout the book. Usually, it lurks just below the surface, though in several scenes it breaks through uproariously. When the Gosling‘s crew goes ashore in Valparaiso to seek out Harriet’s missing brother, who turns out to be a wanted fugitive, they succeed in finding the slender Englishman, reeking to high heaven after being spat upon by unhappy llamas. In the process, they also tip off the authorities to his whereabouts. In the ensuing chase, the Gosling‘s crew and their smelly companion are narrowly rescued by Captain Dexter in a purloined public coach, careening through Valparaiso’s waterfront streets. A very funny scene indeed.
Judas Island is a highly entertaining sea adventure with a refreshingly different cast of characters told by a master storyteller. Highly recommended. I look forward to reading the next two books of the trilogy, Calafia’s Kingdom and Dearest Enemy.