David Grann’s The Wager has been on many a Top 10 list for best books of 2023. After the last two book critiques, I wanted to spread out and cover an entirely different section of the bookstore. Fantasy and horror are my favorite genres, but I don’t just read fantasy and horror. I had seen The Wager on the bookshelves of my local B&N but wasn’t too interested in it before the best books of 2023 lists all seemed to have it on their rankings. A change of mind was in order, and I’m glad I did. The writing style used in The Wager has become what I want to see in non-fiction.


In Britain in 1740, Commodore Anson was given a task by the British Admiralty to take a small fleet of ships around Cape Horn in South America to capture a Spanish Galleon filled with gold. Due to other conflicts, Anson and his captains had to use press gangs and other conscription tactics to fill the posts necessary to undertake the mission.

Sickness and delays plagued the outset of this small fleet. When they finally left port and sailed to South America, they arrived at the wrong time of year. The crew had been battling all sorts of setbacks and diseases only to arrive at Cape Horn during the season with the roughest weather. Captain Cheap had taken the position as Captain of the Wager right before the fleet separated in a storm that cast the Wager into a torrent of rock and giant waves.

The ship slowly broke apart in the storm and wrecked upon the rocks near an island. The crew was not happy with Cheap and eventually many came to blame him for getting the ship stranded and broken. Immediately factions among the survivors formed. A small group of nihilistic personalities seceded from the main group and formed a camp elsewhere on the island. The larger party of survivors eventually splintered off when Cheap tried to retain command of the group with an iron fist.

Most of the disagreements were over the situation as a whole, but when Cheap shot a man in the mouth and he later died of his wounds, the splintering took hold at the highest level. His second in command started to side with a sailor of much lower standing, Gunner Bulkeley. The splinter group needed the second in command to provide a legal standing for their mutiny of Cheap.

Bulkeley convinces Cheap’s second to side with him and uses him as a power proxy to build a boat from the remains of the shipwreck. After the construction is complete, the group sets out for the Strait of Magellan. A sailor, Byron, who is the grandfather of the famous Lord Byron we all know and love, begins to question the decision to mutiny and returns to Cheap with a handful of other men not comfortable with Bulkeley’s actions.

The group with Captain Cheap eventually set out for their original destination, Chiloé Island. They fail to find a way out of the bay due to the massive waves pushing them back toward Wager Island, the name they give to the island that shipwrecked them. A group of native people helps Cheap and his men to get there. The remaining survivors who stayed with Cheap are captured by the Spanish and held prisoner for years.

Bulkeley manages to get through the Strait of Magellan, but along the way, many men are lost to the effort. When a storm threatens to sink their craft, Bulkeley decides to abandon some of the men who swam ashore to get food. These men are also eventually taken captive. Bulkeley and the survivors that went with him make it to Rio Grande, a place where they can find passage back to Britain.

Whether they were captured or not, the sailors from both parties who didn’t die in captivity or at sea make it back home…eventually. When Bulkeley gets back to Britain, he sets to work crafting a narrative that will help keep him alive and away from the stockade. The crime of mutiny was a death sentence.

When Cheap eventually arrives in Britain years later, the true battle of narratives begins. A court-martial investigates a narrow claim about who caused the Wager to wreck. This signals that the Admiralty doesn’t want to make a decision either for Cheap or for Bulkeley’s group. The narrative that eventually wins is not the one that Bulkeley writes or any of the other narratives that come directly from the group, but the narrative that Commodore Anson commissions to tell of his adventures. He managed to fulfill the original goal of the journey and capture a Spanish Galleon. He sailed around the globe to get back home with the treasure. Over a thousand men who had set sail on the journey perished, and only Anson’s ship made it safely home.

What Worked

The book is non-fiction, but it is not the kind of non-fiction that bludgeons you with facts in a dry style and tone. The book is researched well, but the story flows almost as cleanly as a work of fiction with a third-person omniscient perspective. The psychic distance to the sailors is very close at times with direct quotes pulled from the sailors’ writings. This style is what I want more of in my non-fiction books.

That style alone isn’t where the great work stops. David has managed to construct a narrative that pulls you along with moderate pacing and excellently chosen chapter breaks. We leave Captain Cheap’s storyline when he gets taken captive until he arrives in Britain. By doing that, we know Cheap is alive and capable of calling out Bulkeley for mutiny, but the sense of drama is heightened when we get to the war of narratives at the end. The choice to do that is smart.

What Didn’t Work

If this were a work of fiction, I would probably suggest the story seems to jump dramatically from point to point in time. We are in Britain with the failures to launch on time, and then we are in South America almost ready to go around Cape Horn. The pacing is almost too fast. I would want to slow down a bit and explore each part of the story a little bit more. This fast pacing also happens at other times such as Anson’s journey and success in taking a Spanish Galleon.

I would also suggest a work of fiction explore the characters in a closer psychic distance. There are times when I want to see the story shown and not told when the people are making big decisions that create the bulk of the tension. Times like Cheap’s shooting of the sailor or Bulkeley’s plots to mutiny are great places to show the decisions being made through the minds of those men making them.

But this is non-fiction. And for non-fiction, those choices wouldn’t be appropriate. This feels exactly like how I want my non-fiction to read.

Conclusion and Video

If you are trying to learn how to write a great non-fiction novel, this is a great candidate. The choices that Grann makes in his writing are great. I can see why this has been on many of the top book lists for 2023. Well done, David. Well done.

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