When the Walter Scott Prize Academy published their list of twenty recommended historical fiction novels earlier this year, My Beautiful Imperial was one of the titles that sounded particularly appealing to me, so I was delighted to be offered a copy for review. I love books set in times and places I know nothing about and which are educational as well as entertaining – and this is one of those books.
It begins in 19th century Wales, where young Davy Davies is dreaming of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a sailor. Beginning navigation classes with the remarkable Sarah Jane Rees brings him closer to achieving his ambition, but it is not until tragedy strikes the Davies family that Davy must leave his home in Cardigan behind and embark on his career at sea. The years go by and Davy eventually becomes captain of the Imperial – and as luck would have it he is sailing up and down the coast of South America just as civil war breaks out in Chile.
President Balmaceda retains control of the Chilean Army but his Navy rebel and side against him and Davy finds that the Imperial is commandeered by the President’s forces, who are desperate for ships. Davy agrees to continue in his role as captain, but soon instead of carrying passengers, cargo and mail, the Imperial is transporting troops, supplies and ammunition. These are dangerous times, but Davy is sustained by his love for Estella, whom he meets while the ship is in harbour in Valparaiso. The only problem is, Estella is already married…
I really enjoyed reading My Beautiful Imperial. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Chile before and I certainly knew nothing about the Chilean Civil War of 1891. Although the main focus of the novel is on Davy’s own involvement in the war, there are also scenes written from the perspectives of several other characters, ranging from President Balmaceda himself to a reporter sent to Chile to cover the story for his newspaper, and in this way we are able to learn about the political situation in Chile, the causes of the conflict and some of the key events that take place before, during and after the war.
I sometimes struggle with books in which large sections of the story are set at sea, but that was not a problem here. The nautical terminology is kept to a level that I could understand and the descriptions of sea chases and manoeuvres are easy enough to follow. There are plenty of land-based sections too, giving us some glimpses of life in Valparaiso and other parts of Chile, as well as the opening chapters depicting Davy’s childhood in Wales. Davy’s path crosses with Estella’s several times throughout the novel, but their romance is only one small element of the story and I thought it was all the more moving because their meetings were few and far between.
I was interested to learn that Rhiannon Lewis had based this novel on the life of her great-great-uncle – he really was a Welsh sailor who became caught up in the Chilean Civil War. You can find pictures and more information on the author’s website. With such a strong personal connection, it must have been a fascinating book to research. It is certainly a fascinating one to read!
Thanks to the author for providing a copy of My Beautiful Imperial for review.
This is book 6/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.