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Fiction Review Lewis folds love, war and politics in a memorably epic embrace

My Beautiful Imperial
by Rhiannon Lewis
(Victorina Press, £9.99)

“A FRAMED set of etchings and an old photograph album were almost all I had to go on when I began my research 20 years ago. Once I started, I was hooked. At every turn, the story became more incredible,” Rhiannon Lewis says in her epilogue to this novel, based on real people and events.

And what a story she's written. It tells of David Jefferson Davis, “Davy,”  a young farmer living in rural Wales in the 1860s whose family life is suddenly torn apart by a tragic incident involving the death of his little sister Elen for which he is mistakenly blamed.

Forced to leave home and following in the steps of his father and grandfather before him, Davy embarks on a career at sea that eventually takes him all over the world.

Through hard work, persistence and his desire to command people, Davy manages to gain the captaincy of the Imperial, built in Birkenhead, and considered one the finest mailboats of its time.

Aboard the mighty ship, Davy travels to Chile in the 1890s and, without warning, suddenly becomes embroiled in the bloody Chilean civil war, during which the majority of ships deserted president Jose Manuel Balmaceda’s navy.

The British vessel takes part in the dangerous task of loading and transporting thousands of Chilean government troops, as well as horses and ammunition, while attempting to evade the constant attacks of the rebels’ ships in pursuit.

My Beautiful Imperial is a wonderfully epic story of friendship, unfulfilled love, human tragedy, war and Latin American politics that grips from the very beginning. It's an exhilarating journey from the poorest parts of rural Wales to the Houses of Parliament at the height of imperialist Victorian London, from Australia as a new immigrant destination to Buenos Aires, from the perils of crossing the Andes to busy Valparaiso harbour and beyond.

The book is based on actual events that tore Chile apart at the end of the 19th century and were in part fuelled by British colonialism and the influence of powerful economic interests in London attempting to keep a grip on the lucrative trade in nitrates.

It vividly recounts the adventures at sea of Lewis’s great-great uncle yet also manages to skilfully interweave a narration of the social lives of poor farmers living around the Cardigan Bay area of Wales, the change and improvement in women’s rights and the complexities of Chilean politics at the turn of the century.

This exciting debut from a highly promising author finds a happy counterpart in a new small independent publisher founded by the Chilean poet, activist and academic Consuelo Rivera Fuentes.

A must-read.



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