________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 37 . . . . May 25, 2018


The King's Shilling.

David Starr.
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2017.
221 pp., trade pbk., e-book & pdf, $11.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55380-526-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55380-527-4 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-55380-528-1 (pdf).

Grades 4-9 / Ages 9-14.

Review by Ruth Latta.

*** /4



…[S]houts erupt in the darkness. "Three cheers for the Cerebus. Three cheers for King George"…

"Well," says Bill. "It seems we did [win]. What do you think, Trap? Do we yell out for help, or do we not?"

"What do ye mean?" I'm exhausted, too slow by far to pick up his intimation.

"I think it's time we said goodbye to the Royal Navy, don't you? Swim to shore, take shelter in some nice Sicilian inn, then make our way back to England and get your sister. I told you an opportunity would present itself. I just didn't think it would come at the expense of my foot."

"Do ye think we can make it? To shore I mean. In yer condition?"

"I don't see why not."

"What about the cap'n? Will he come looking for us?"

Bill laughs softly, then gasps in pain.

"Hardly. There are bits and pieces of sailors all over the decks and at the bottom of the sea. When they take roll call, Captain Whitby will assume we perished. Ain't no way anyone's going to come looking for us. What do you think? Make up your mind quickly before the sharks choose for us."

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.


Ruth Latta is the author of Grace and the Secret Vault, an historical novel for young adults. Grace in Love (2018), a stand-alone sequel, is for grownups.

To comment on this title or this review, contact cm@umanitoba.ca.

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