It is 1721 and young Adam Hanaway, devastated by his father's sudden death, leaves England to seek his fortune in Lisbon, where his uncle is a successful merchant. But almost nothing turns out as Adam planned. His family's welcome is cool, and Adam's rise is thwarted by his uncle's treacherous clerk and also by a certain personal trait. He's not a coward exactly, but he is inclined to boldly put himself in dangerous situations and then at the last minute run away -- hence the nickname.
Adam certainly has a lot to learn. The Inquisition grips Portugal, and those who befriend Adam may not be well intentioned. His mother and sisters wait for him to rescue them from poverty, but he is distracted by a number of local beauties. Then he commits a social faux pas so severe he forever ruins his chances for making a good match. Swept up in a struggle that will require him to come into his manhood -- the struggle between wickedness and humanity -- it seems Adam will never find his way to success, to love, or to peace with the life fate has given him.