Book Review: The Assiduous Quest of Tobias Hopkins

By James Faro

This is a nice mystery tale of a somewhat eccentric merchant captain called Tobias Hopkins.  Fortune appBook_Cover_TobiasHopkinsears to be against our hero, but through this story, he manages to turn fortune back to his side – in part thanks to the guiding hand of his lost father.  The writing is well constructed and cleverly toned to the 18th century (ish) where our novel is set.  It was a bit slow for my liking, and I can’t say I ever felt overly attached to any of the characters, but it was an interesting and colourful read.  Overall I would say that I liked this book.

James Faro is an ex-sailor in the merchant navy, and his knowledge and understanding shine through in the text.  The technical nautical terminology was woven in so perfectly that, even though I am not a sailor – I don’t know the name of all the sails! – it didn’t matter.  The sailors in the story seemed to know what they were doing, and that’s all that really matters.

And this is also a really excellent piece of prose. Smooth and unblemished, and yet woven to the 18th century as mentioned above.  It was never a chore to read, and there did not seem to be superfluous or excessive text.  Nice work.

However, despite this, I did find that the story was a touch sedate for my liking.  It is certainly not the execution that slowed this down; rather this story moved at the pace of Toby’s own personality.  And Toby, being a logical, somewhat fussy, and well considered man, gives us a story in his own image.  So if you’re after raw emotion and charged action, then Toby is not your hero.  He is more Holmes than Bond.

But this does mean that emotional peaks and troughs are fairly genteel, and for me that meant that I wasn’t able to engage on a raw level with the characters.  It was a bit like meeting a very straight and well-considered colleague at work: it is never a chore and I wouldn’t speak anything but positively about them, but I wouldn’t invite them to the pub.  It’s quite a formal relationship we have with Toby – just how Toby would like it, I suspect.

Part of the challenge here might be that I don’t think Toby actually changes much throughout the novel – he is not really challenged to adapt as misfortune befalls him.  In fact, he rather strolls through the challenge, albeit with some help from Lady Luck.  And therein lies the problem.  If he was challenged more, then we may be drawn into his vulnerability.  As it is, Toby remains a straight up recognisable character, but still not well understood.  Or maybe it’s just me!

However, this is certainly not saying that the characters are flat and under-developed; they are not.  They are very rich in fact, and James’s understanding of the 18th century Caribbean is truly excellent.  His portrayal of the local people, places, and culture were vivid and enjoyable – a treat for anyone who has limited exposure to that historical period.  Like me!  The details in here are really enjoyable.

Beyond this, a word of caution.  I think that this novel has actually been split into three “books”, and I must admit that I don’t know how this would work.  It seemed to make sense as an overall novel, but there aren’t clear separation points to turn it into a quick-fire trilogy.  I would recommend reading the whole novel.  The best bits are (invariably) at the end of the story, so if you read this in “parts” then you’re in danger of doing Toby an injustice!

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