Friday, January 23, 2015

The Seas of Morning by Geoffrey Trease

Because I'm trying to get a feel for the atmosphere, climate, and setting of medieval Constantinople for my writing projects, I've been reading a number of books set in and around that city. Last week I decided to re-read an old childhood favourite, The Seas of Morning, by the well-regarded author of historical fiction for children, Geoffrey Trease (not to be confused with that other well-regarded author of historical fiction for young people, Henry Treece).

We had books by both Treece and Trease growing up, and read and re-read them with a fair bit of enjoyment, but there was never any contest as to which of those authors we enjoyed most. Geoffrey Trease's Seas of Morning, about the siege of Rhodes by the Turks in 1480, and Cue For Treason, a thrilling and humorous tale of intrigue in the days of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, were both favourites. Later on we acquired a copy of Bows Against the Barons, which reimagines the Robin Hood legends as a Wat Tyler-esque rebellion against the nobles, but we never liked that book as much; the ending was too tragic and unhappy.

The Seas of Morning, though a fairly slim book, is well worth reading. It tells the story of Dick Stockton, the son of a wealthy London merchant who dreams of joining the Knights of St John and travelling to their island fortress of Rhodes to help them fight against the Turks. When Brother Simon, a knight from the local priory at Clerkenwell, is called back to the island, Dick is overjoyed to be invited to travel with him. Adventure calls when a ship of pilgrims is attacked by Turkish pirates: Dick travels to Constantinople, derelict and glorious, Sultan Mehmet's prize, to rescue a friend enslaved in the shipboard fight, and along the way learns a secret that threatens the very existence of the Knights of St John.

This is a really enjoyable little read. At just 176 pages long, the book appears deceptively simple, but I was impressed with how much historical fact and detail Trease packs into his story. London, Venice, Rhodes, and Constantinople are fleshed out meticulously, with the kind of detail that only comes from a close familiarity with the time period and locations. The only place where the story comes in danger of bogging down into detail occurs when Trease attempts to describe the fortifications of the island of Rhodes, but these passages aren't lengthy. Overall, I thoroughly appreciated how well Trease communicates a lot of information without the reader quite realising how much he's learning!

I had a couple of niggles, as always--I thought the Christians' attitude to the Turkish occupation of Constantinople, less than thirty years before the action of the book, was inauthentically blase, and I thought Trease's heroine was annoyingly, spunkily perfect in a mildly feminist manner--it did not ring true that Christians would see enslavement by the Turks as remotely analogous to marriage to a Christian. But those are very minor niggles.

This time around, I particularly appreciated reading about a main character from the third estate--not a nobleman, as so often happens in popular fiction about this time period, but a merchant's son. There is a quiet celebration of the worth of entrepreneurship, diligence, and courage that characterised medieval merchants. As Dick visits his father's friends and colleagues in France, Venice, Rhodes, and Constantinople, one begins to appreciate how far-reaching medieval trade was, and what important men the merchants could be.

I also enjoyed reading about the Siege of Rhodes--another stunning, Providential moment in history. About ten years ago I had the opportunity to read GA Henty's A Knight of the White Cross, another book set in the same time period, and while I thoroughly enjoyed that book, I remember also feeling a new appreciation for Trease's book, which conveys much the same information in a more digestible manner. This book is a snapshot of a time and a place, vivid, detailed, and absorbing. An excellent history resource for children.

Find The Seas of Morning on Amazon or ABEBooks.

3 comments:

Kim Marsh said...

Thank you for recalling Trease to my memory! You might also enjoy Peter Dickinson The Dancing Bear set in the time of Belisarius.
Regards Kim

Ana @ Butterflies of the Imagination said...

I read only historical fiction as a child, but it was only about pioneers and Native Americans, so I'm not surprised that I've never heard of The Seas of Morning. Still, it seems like a wonderful book, so it's going on my TBR.

Suzannah said...

Kim - thanks, the Dickinson book looks like fun!

Ana - wow, did you never read any historical fiction from other settings? Have you got a treat in store - I love stumbling across previously - unknown bits of history. :D

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