Out Front the Following Sea
By Leah Angstman
Reviewed by Michael J. Coffino
“Out Front the Following Sea” is historical fiction set amid the war between French and English settlers in late seventeenth century New England. The author employs two main characters—an independent fiery woman and maverick commercial sailor, locked in fate by a shared secret and devotion for each other—to guide readers through the often-bitter lives, competing cultures, and differing values of repressive Quakers, persecuted Pequot Indians, lawless vagabonds, and an irascible seafaring contingent, all entangled in a military conflict between England and France.
From a book review perspective, “Out Front the Following Sea” is one of those books where it is hard to know where to start. Do you begin with the meticulous awe-inspiring research? Do you trumpet the sheer elegance of the writing? Or do you extoll the provocative storytelling?
In all cases, to appreciate the wonder of this book requires taking a deep dive into its superb artistic expression.
Each sentence reflects tireless and finite writer dedication, offering morsels of literary pleasure that exhibit an admirable commitment to the craft of writing. The imagery is vivid and nuanced, invoking different human senses at once, as if the reader is cast in a supporting role in each scene or, at the least, escorted to a front row seat of a vibrant theater performance.
Best is the gripping plot, brimming with the essential ingredients of a suspenseful work: drama, personal conflict, witchcraft, violence (some graphic), evil, religion, and war.
But at its core, “Out Front the Following Sea” is an historical romance, a searing saga about devotion, loyalty, and love. It is reminiscent of the passionate love story in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans,” set during the eighteenth century French and Indian War and brought to life on the big screen by Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Like works of fiction often do, the narrative here includes its share of belief suspension, as some plot connections may seem too seamless and improbable, and the ending, well, will certainly roll some eyes. But novelists have license to defy belief, and what occurs here is nothing out of the ordinary (and indeed has the stuff of a compelling movie script).
Some will find the book over-written, that the author spends too much time basking in imaginative literary space. There is some truth there. The author can overwhelm readers with language, elusive imagery, purple prose, and dialect of the times. Her command of language is mind-boggling, for sure. But the frequency of the book’s linguistic incursions can be exhausting, requiring repeated reading, stop and go.
Enjoying the full splendor of this book requires patience and curiosity, a methodical approach to absorbing content. Each word is celebrated, nothing is wasted. The inquisitive reader will doubtless find themselves running repeatedly to the glossary at the back of the book or Google to fathom meaning. The less inquisitive may find themselves glossing over language, electing instead to tease meaning from the unfamiliar to avoid hiccups in digesting the otherwise stellar storytelling.
Here is a typical sentence, describing the cherished sword of the main seafaring character:
“She was a single-edged, single-fuller, custom-forged steeled saber, with a rapier-hybrid swept hilt, curved guard, knuckle branches, and thumb annellet, a hand-and-a-half ricasso with full tang, running through a soft-curved flatback and custom-fitted waisted grip covered in helix-wired-wrapped shark skin, and held together by a rounded thrust pommel and a metallic-gold-and-red passementerie sword knot for distraction and recall.”
Some, many in fact, will exclaim bravo, heaping praise on the writer for her linguistic brilliance, and that would be fair. It is an extraordinary description, and if you take the time to understand each component, the full splendor of the sword—and its significance to its owner—flashes in the mind’s eye. But asking readers to take that plunge regularly can be challenging.
Here is the bottom line. “Out Front the Following Sea” deserves the tag “epic.” It is a special piece of literature. For that reason, it deserves a degree of reading engagement that mirrors and honors the devotion Ms. Angstman brought to its writing. It is not a book to glide through, as if taking a causal walk on a lazy afternoon. To appreciate the full breadth and depth of the narrative, readers must commit to a full-on literary experience, the kind that entails recurrent pauses to take a breath, garner meaning, imagine, understand historical context, and let the experience settle. If you want a novel grounded in pithy declaratory sentences with unadorned vocabulary and a fluid reading romp through a good story, this is not the book for you. Here, you are either all-in or you are not.
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