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I first read Iain Lawrence's The Wreckers and its sequel, The Smugglers, last year, after they had been highly recommended to me by my Bulletin colleagues. As I eagerly dodged danger with John Spencer over land and sea, I was reminded of afternoons spent with my mother watching Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood on T.V. Those movies were my introduction to swashbuckling swordplay and adventures on the high seas, situations I could only imagine as I grew up in the middle of landlocked east central Illinois. With the first lines of Lawrence's The Wreckers ("For seven days we ran before the storm. . . We ran toward England under topsails and jib, in a brig called the Isle of Skye. She leaked from every seam, from every hatch and skylight. But she went like a witch mile after mile, wrapped in a shroud of spray"), I was asea once more, as I rediscovered my love for the nautical adventure.
This year, The Wreckers and The Smugglers were joined by The Buccaneers, which Lawrence says is the last of what he now calls his "High Seas Trilogy." While The Buccaneers isn't quite up to the mark Lawrence established with the previous two titles, it contains enough cliffhangers and adrenaline-pumping moments to carry readers through with ease, and the book's ending neatly brings John Spencer back full circle to the setting and characters of The Wreckers. All in all, Lawrence's trilogy is an exceptionally strong trio of middle grade/young adult novels. Youthful hero John Spencer is inexperienced but, being constantly thrown into perilous situations, he must make spur-of-the-moment decisions while not knowing whom to trust, and readers (though we may have our suspicions) are never entirely sure who "the bad guys" are either until they finally reveal themselves. Which brings us to the second strength of these titles-the villains. These are black-hearted rogues and bloodthirsty scoundrels who kill, plot, and plunder, but John stands up to and ultimately wins out against all of them, in scenes that possess all the pleasures of a Western showdown or an Errol Flynn swordfight. Finally, Lawrence skillfully evokes the atmosphere of his chosen settings; late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth-century England, the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding seas, and assorted tropical islands leap to life as storms rage, fevers and sharks lurk, and ships hold secrets. It is Lawrence's expert pacing (that gradually reveals the truth of the plot while simultaneously providing edge-of-your-seat action) and fluent writing that bind these ingredients into taut and coherent narratives, ones that could easily have sprung from the pen of R. L. Stevenson.
Lawrence has also proven himself to be quite capable with other styles and material in two other very different, but equally intriguing, historical novels: 2000's Ghost Boy and this year's Lord of the Nutcracker Men. Ghost Boy tells the story of a Harold, an albino teen who runs away to spend his summer working for a traveling circus in the American west shortly after World War II. Here Lawrence's pace is more lingering as he poignantly describes Harold's struggles to find his place among the circus folk and his place in larger society. Lord of the Nutcracker Men, set in World War I England, focuses on young Johnny, who gradually becomes convinced that his war play with toy soldiers (carved by his toy-maker father who is off fighting at the front) is affecting the actual battles in France. Lawrence deftly weaves the various plot developments together, successfully integrating Johnny's experiences with those of his father (described in letters home to Johnny) and the suspense builds as the line between reality and the supernatural becomes increasingly blurred.
With these five unique novels under his belt, Lawrence already has created an oeuvre that will appeal to a variety of readers. His books stand out from the crowd, thanks to his masterful pacing, his memorable and unusual characters, and his uncanny ability to capture the atmosphere of very specific times and places. I can't wait to see where he'll take us next.
--Jeannette Hulick, Editorial Assistant and Reviewer
Books by Iain Lawrence:
The "High Seas Trilogy:"
This page was last updated on December 1, 2001.