Robert Nye, . . Arcade, $24.95 (400pp) ISBN 978-1-55970-646-9

In his wry, inimitable style, Nye (The Late Mr. Shakespeare; Falstaff) delves into the mind, heart and soul of Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh as he embarks on his final voyage. Late in life, after suffering 13 years of unjust imprisonment in the Tower of London, Raleigh is released on the condition that he go in search of South American gold for greedy King James I. On his ill-conceived journey, Raleigh falls ill and is stranded off the coast of Trinidad. His son continues up the Orinoco River with half the expedition, but is killed in a battle with Spanish forces. Since Raleigh was forbidden on pain of death to fight the Spanish, he knows he is doomed if he returns to England. The subsequent chapters find Raleigh facing a fateful decision—to turn to piracy and raid the silver-laden Spanish "Plate Fleet" or set sail for England and face death by hanging at the hands of King James. Nye's narration is jittery in the early going as the author hops back and forth between the ill-fated expedition, Raleigh's memories of his infamous romance with Elizabeth I and his odd relationship with the spiritual but violent Guayacunda, an Indian who becomes Raleigh's aide and introduces the Englishman to the mysterious powers of the coca leaf. But once Nye finds his rhythm, he takes readers on a wild historical ride, probing Raleigh's life and character in scenes that range from the bawdy and profane to the reflective ("The voyage of my history. The tale of my life and fortunes. Descriptive. Expository"). The man who emerges is a tremendously flawed and vital being, perfectly suited to Nye's wise, richly imaginative and riotously entertaining brand of historical portraiture. (Jan.)

Forecast:Though Raleigh doesn't have the same pull as Shakespeare, Nye is building a reputation in the U.S. among the PBS crowd, and this latest novel should make a strong showing.