In 1629 the Batavia sets sail from Amsterdam on her maiden voyage, loaded with passengers and supplies for the Dutch colonies in the East Indies. When the ship wrecks on an uncharted reef, the survivors face dwindling supplies, a hostile climate, and the increasingly dangerous whims of the man they expected to save them.
Greta van der Rol’s Die a Dry Death is based on the true story of the Batavia‘s wreck off the coast of Australia. The passengers and crew end up stranded on a series of rocky islands, with little food and even less potable water. When Captain Adriaen Jacobsz sails for the East Indies in an open boat, hoping to arrange a rescue, the survivors turn to Under Merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz for leadership. Unfortunately, the merchant’s mild exterior soon gives way to a terrifying thirst for power that takes more lives than either the wreck or the elements.
Short Review: Highly recommended. Accurate, well-researched historical fiction with both action arcs and (internal) character development arcs. (Note: there is one explicit sex scene.)
A more lengthy review (with no real spoilers) below the fold.
Historical fiction can easily descend into lengthy description, bogging the story down in detail and losing the action arc along the way. This flaw tends to appear most often where the story’s action occurs within a small space, because the author supplements the characters’ lack of physical movement with description and lengthy internal dialogue.
Die a Dry Death avoids these flaws, partly by shifting POV between the survivors stranded on the rocky islands known as Batavia’s Graveyard and Cat Island (though the inhabitants aren’t really cats – their identity proved a very nice and well-written surprise, which I’ll leave for you to enjoy as much as I did) and partly by use of dialogue to speed the pace.
The novel features great historical details and uses them to enhance the story rather than just “window-dressing” and stage props. The author’s knowledge of sailing and nautical terms gives life to the shipwreck and Captain Jacobsz’s struggle to reach the Dutch East Indies in time to save the survivors he left behind. The limited supplies salvaged from the Batavia – including those which cannot be eaten or drunk – enhance the growing tensions between Cornelisz and his band of bloodthirsty followers and the innocents trapped on the island after the under merchant seizes control.
Although the novel has heroes and villains, van de Rol never forgets the principle that every villain is the hero of his own story (and its corollary: that no person or protagonist is without a flaw), and thereby creates characters whose internal arcs are both believable and complex. In particular, the transformation of Under Merchant Cornelisz from pasty incompetent to cold-blooded sociopath is fascinating, particularly in the last few chapters.
I planned to read this novel over the course of a week. Instead, I found myself staying up (far too) late and finished it in two nights. I found it nearly impossible to put down.
As I mentioned above the fold, the novel does have some sexual content, but not enough to offend. Graphic content appears in only two scenes, both of which are easily skipped without losing the story arc, though the second (longer) scene does have a significant impact on a main character’s internal struggle and definitely accomplishes its goal of highlighting the character’s internal debate.
(Note: I warn about graphic sexual content because some of my readers prefer to avoid it. In this case, it doesn’t interfere with story line to skip those scenes, so I’d still recommend this one even for those who choose to “skip the graphic bits.”)
Overall review: I definitely enjoyed this novel more than most. The pacing is fast, the characters believable, and I would almost certainly read it again. Highly recommended.