LAND OF MIST AND SNOW
by Debra Doyle & James D. MacDonald
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Land of Mist and Snow is Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald's entry into the already crowded field combining magic and history. In this case, the magical ship Nicodemus is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The novel is told in epistolary format, focusing on the journals of Lt. John Nevis, whose assignment to the mysterious Nicodemus is a relief from desk duty, and the civilian Columbia Abrams, who is assigned to the Nicodemus to help keep the ship running.
The Nicodemus is the brainchild of William Sharpe, whose dabbling in the arcane arts has led him to believe that a magical ship is a possibility. With the support of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who desires vengeance on Nicaraguan president William Walker, The Nicodemus is built at an isolated naval base in Greenland.
As noted, Doyle and MacDonald have elected to tell their story using extracts from Nevis's journal and Abrams's diary, along with a variety of other "source" materials: letters from crew members, reports from spies, and so forth. The result is that they are able to present different voices and depict action which Abrams and Nevis would not know about, especially with regard to the Alecto, the ship of their nemesis.
However, even as Land of Most and Snow details military action aboard a ship during the Civil War, the action in the book is understated and Doyle and MacDonald focus instead on the occult knowledge that Sharpe has and is slowly, carefully, imparting to Abrams in order to make his mystical ship run more smoothly. An additional focus is on the budding relationship between Abrams and Nevis, which, given the situation, is a little too obvious.
Once the Nicodemus and Alecto are both at sea, there is a certain amount of tension in the chase, either as Alecto bears down on Nicodemus or vice versa. However, for all the discussion in the book about the fate of the war, and the world, on whether Sharpe's vessel or Walker's vessel ultimately triumphs, the authors don't show the importance. The ships' influence on the world at large is never shown, so the reader is left just taking the characters' words, or often impressions, that the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Similarly, Alecto is the main villain rather than an individual, and it is more amorphous, and therefore less threatening, than an individual would have been.
While there is little depth to any of the characters, perhaps the strongest character is Sharpe, rather than the primary characters. With a little information of Sharpe's background as presented in the few chapters from his own point of view, along with Abrams's and Nevis's reactions to him, he becomes an Ahab-like figure with the twin goals of destroying the Alecto and proving that his own mystical ship is the way of the future.
In the end, the reader is left with the feeling that the outcome doesn't really have a bearing on the course of the world or the war. The relationship between Nevis and Abrams is predictable as is the fate of both ships and their captains. Land of Mist and Snow has its inspired moments, but they are frequently lost in the overall feel of the novel and the distancing language used by the authors.
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