CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 37 . . . . May 25, 2018
The King's Shilling is a stand-alone sequel to David Starr's 2017 boys' adventure novel, The Nor'Wester. Set in the first decade of the 19th century, The Nor'Wester centres on Duncan Scott, a Scottish teenager who attacks a callous textile manufacturer in whose mill his parents have burned to death. With the law after him, Duncan and his sister, Libby, flee to Liverpool, where a false friend tries to turn them over to the law. Duncan escapes by stowing away on a Quebec-bound ship while Libby voluntarily remains to face the authorities.
In British North America, Duncan participates in a North West Company expedition to the Pacific Ocean. As The King's Shilling opens, Duncan is returning to England to take a letter from the director of the North West Company to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, informing him of the discovery of the Fraser River. Duncan's priority, however, is finding Libby, and, on disembarking in Liverpool, he meets an acquaintance who knows what has happened to her.
Libby was sentenced to hanging, but Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer, took up her cause, resulting in the sentence being changed to penal servitude in Australia. Before she could be sent there, however, she vanished into thin air.
Duncan, still a wanted man, is travelling under an alias. He makes his way to London and delivers the letter to Viscount Castlereagh, only to be told that the Secretary is busy with the war against Napoleon and isn't interested in the discovery of a river in "some godforsaken corner of North America".
"The most remarkable journey of my life means nothing to him," thinks Duncan. "I am free to leave, my duty to both the North West Company and the British Empire complete."
Fate, however, has other plans for Duncan. When he goes to Elizabeth Fry's home to speak to her about Libby, he finds that she and her husband are out of the city. Waiting for their return, he stays at a waterfront inn which is raided by the press gang, a patrol that forcibly recruits men for the Navy. Against his will, Duncan finds that he has "taken the King's Shilling". The expression arose from the silver coin that was paid to a man on joining the armed forces (whether voluntarily or under duress.)
On the Cerebus, bound to fight Russian ships in the Baltic Sea, Duncan is bullied by a young gentleman seeking a commission, and he has to prove himself by climbing two hundred feet above the deck to check on a sail. He is befriended by Tom, an experienced merchant seaman who got tired of the Atlantic trade and joined the navy for a share in the spoils when a French ship was captured. Later, when the Cerebus is sent to fight French warships in the Mediterranean, Duncan becomes buddies with another sailor, Bill.
Early nineteenth century modes of travel, including the threat of highway robbery, harsh justice (hanging, transportation, prison ships on the Thames) and life in the Royal Navy will interest young history buffs. The novel indirectly introduces young readers to some historical figures, like Napoleon and British General Arthur Wellesley, conducting a land war which will culminate at the Battle of Waterloo. Also informative is the reference to Elizabeth Fry, for whom the Elizabeth Fry Society, which helps women in conflict with the law, is named.
Throughout the novel, Duncan never loses sight of wanting to find his sister, but the two women in the story, Libby and Elizabeth Fry, appear in very few scenes. The King's Shilling is about male bonding; Duncan's resourcefulness and courage are demonstrated in all-male environments. It is a good thing to depict male characters exhibiting fair play and supporting one another in dangerous situations, and certainly The King's Shilling is a high-level example of the boys' adventure story genre, but it probably will not be too interesting to teenaged girls. The upbeat ending, however, hints of a third novel in which Libby may play a bigger role.
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