The year is 1786: Captain William Rennie is on the beach and on half pay when he’s given a prime commission: HMS Expedient is a 36 gun frigate; she is to be sent to the South Seas on a scientific expedition. For Lieutenant James Hayter, his own commission in Expedient out of the blue is equally surprising and exciting. But for these two sea officers there is something odd and disturbing about the nature of their task.
Spring 1791. Though deeply disturbed by a terrible incident during his previous commission, James Hayter is nevertheless on the verge of taking command of HMS Sloop Eglantine as Master and Commander when personal tragedy shatters his life. The twin blows convince Hayter that he is not fit to command and he must turn his back on the sea forever. Even the intervention of his friend and former captain, William Rennie, cannot not dissuade him from derelicting his duty.
HMS Expedient and her crew have survived their most perilous commission yet: the dead have been buried and the battle scars repaired. Captain James Rennie is anxious to be active again after a year on the beach. And this time he longs for regular service with the Fleet as opposed to the extraordinarily dangerous detached missions he has been assigned by Britain’s shadowy spy masters in the last few years. His friend, Lieutenant James Hayter, is haunted by his past and he too longs for the sea.
It is the eve of the French Revolution and England awaits with trepidation the news from the Continent that will propel her into war again after six years of peace. But Lieutenant James Hayter's orders from the Admiralty do not at first involve the sea. He must go inland to seek out his friend Captain William Rennie, who has disappeared into the wilds of Dartmoor. When he finds Rennie alone and broken down in an isolated farmhouse, Hayter fears the Captain will be unable to make the journey to London.