Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ice King by Geoff Woodland

Review by Tracy Falbe

Fancy houses rise in Liverpool, England from the profits of slave trading between Africa and the plantations of the West Indies. Empires fight wars for control of the seas that connect sugar plantations, industrialists, and the brutally exploited human capital of West Africa. Amid this dark and dynamic global business, William King is ready to make a man of himself in 1804. His father George King runs a modestly successful shipping company where William is employed as a first mate. The Ice King opens with William telling his father he wants a captaincy. George refuses and William rebelliously accepts a commission with the British Navy.

During a war with Napoleonic France, William serves blockade duty off the French coast and then commands a vessel taking dispatches to South Africa. His many sea voyages both as a merchant and a military officer have exposed him to the horrors of slave transport, and William is morally against it.

After the war, when William is trying to decide his next career move, he becomes involved with abolitionists as he travels to reunite with his father after years of absence. William finds that his father George has become much more successful. George's new partnership with the powerful Liverpool businessman Donald Nicholson has made George wealthy, but the wealth is all derived from the Slave Trade.

Disapproving, William rejects rejoining his father's shipping company and instead captains a ship backed by the abolitionists. His mission is to prove that trans-Atlantic trading can be profitable without transporting slaves or trading in commodities produced by slaves. This challenge and William's seafaring and commercial adventures between Boston, Jamaica, and Cuba drive the majority of the novel. About halfway through the novel, its title of Ice King becomes clear, but I will not give it away because it is clever and interesting.

In his novel Geoff Woodland displays the sweeping scope of his historical research. Details large and small pack every page of the Ice King as William calls on ports in Liverpool, Boston, Kingstown, and Havana. Each city is summoned in the imagination with vivid details. The stench of Liverpool sewage and its sooty air are constant. The hot sunny diversity of Kingstown blossoms with fruity tropical abundance while always showing the dark underbelly of its slave culture. The mangrove swamps, fortifications, and warehouses of Havana set the scene for a daring slave rescue. The bustling enthusiasm of Boston illustrates the excitement of the young United States.

Woodland employs this broad global landscape with unflagging competence. No place is glossed over. Every setting is carefully developed. The author writes with concrete uncluttered prose that is never flowery but always evocative, and he handles the economic themes of the seafaring commercial empires with great understanding. The sugar produced in the slave plantations is the sweet vice driving the abominable abuse of human capital. A quote from an abolitionist character in the novel explains the problem:

"It is out of sight and therefore out of mind for many people. They want their sugar, but they do not think of the pain and damage inflicted on their fellow human beings to obtain it at a price they are willing to pay."

Even over two hundred years later this sentiment can be applied to many global commodities, and most people still prefer to not think about it.

Woodland's portrayal of human exploitation is not limited to slavery. He mentions how mills in Manchester, England advertised cheaply in Ireland to lure an over abundance of laborers, many of them women, to England. Some women were then easily diverted into Liverpool brothels.

The dreary realities of economic history are only the bones not the soul of this novel. Powerful emotional forces influence the characters. William has a love interest with the capable and shrewd Ruth, daughter of his Boston business partner Abraham. Their romantic relationship is strong but often challenged by their individual desires to run their own companies. George and William have a complicated father-son relationship. William very much serves as a morally redemptive figure when compared to his slave-trading father, who is easily manipulated by Donald Nicholson. And Donald Nicholson embodies the evils of purely reptilian capitalism that has no regard for anything except profit. The reprehensible nature of Donald is further illuminated by the characters of his son, Henry, and daughter, Charlotte. Both are detestable human beings. Henry constantly hungers for sadistic sex with prostitutes, and Charlotte is so irredeemable that when George strikes her across the face, she firmly deserves it.

Many nice touches enliven this engrossing novel that never has one draggy dull moment. The side characters of William's Chinese steward Sang and Paris, the Kingstown coffee house proprietor, add depth and diversity to the story. And the concept of capitalism is also a central character of this novel that nicely portrays how this economic philosophy has shaped the world. Capitalism is seen in both good and bad lights. The commercial successes William achieves as he follows his moral compass act as an inspiring foil to the winning-is-all worship of the brutal commercial status quo presented by Donald and Henry Nicholson.

The Ice King will fill readers' sails with the strong wind of an enlightening historical adventure set on the high seas. The novel presents a tightly written narrative that constantly urged me to read the next page. I was honestly caught up with worry about William until the final paragraph.

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