Monday, March 12, 2018

Book review: Harbor of Spies: A Novel of Historic Havana, by Robin Lloyd

Cuba’s capital, Havana, a neutral port during the U.S. Civil War, serves as a base for Confederate trade and plotting and corresponding Union espionage. In Lloyd’s (Rough Passage to London, 2013) exciting second novel, set in 1863, this Spanish-controlled city swarms with activity, from the shipping industry’s constant din to the masquerade dances that serve as an apt metaphor for individuals’ covert motives.

Everett Townsend, a 19-year-old American schooner captain, gets drawn into danger after rescuing an escaped English prisoner. Blackmailed by a Spanish merchant into smuggling cargo through the Union blockade of the South, Townsend gathers a crew and follows his assignment while pondering his moral quandary.

The shipboard action is exhilarating, and intrigue beckons on land, too, with intertwining subplots about a British diplomat’s unresolved murder, a mystery involving Townsend’s late Cuban mother, and his growing affections for an innkeeper’s daughter. The story eventually leads him straight into the dark, cruel heart of the Cuban economy.

This is an involving reading experience for maritime fans and landlubbers alike. One hopes Townsend’s adventures will continue in future books.

Harbor of Spies was published on March 1st by Lyons Press, and this review was written for Booklist's Feb 15th issue.

Some other notes:

-  I have to give credit to novels that defy my expectations. Although nautical adventure novels aren't my preferred subgenre, Harbor of Spies is much more than that, as I hope the review indicates. Plus, the action sequences on board ship were genuinely exciting and didn't get bogged down in jargon.

- The British diplomat in question is George Backhouse, a historical figure who was posted to Cuba and mysteriously murdered in 1855.

- The author, Robin Lloyd, was a longtime correspondent for NBC News who grew up "sailing in the Caribbean" (per his online bio).

- For Civil War fiction fans, this novel offers a less familiar perspective on events, which I appreciated. I've been reviewing many novels set in and around this period lately, including Charles Frazier's Varina, and I'll be posting my thoughts closer to that book's publication date.

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