C.S. Forester,
Beat to Quarters
(Little, Brown & Co., 1938; Back Bay, 1999)

Beat to Quarters, the first book C.S. Forester wrote in his highly acclaimed Horatio Hornblower series and the sixth in the chronological order of novels, speeds by as fast as a felt hat in a gale.

Although in some ways lacking the polish of his later books -- Forester's habit of writing with a wink to innovations and expressions unknown in Hornblower's time is especially irksome -- Beat to Quarters is a nonstop thrill. From the insane Central American dictator who fancies himself a god to the noble lady who shares Hornblower's ship and pokes holes in his indomitable facade, the book just rolls along at a heady, breathtaking pace.

Of particular note, however, are the sea battles -- three in total, all against the same Spanish ship of the line that outweighs and outguns Hornblower's newly commissioned frigate, Lydia. The Natividad boasts more guns and crew, it's true, but the Lydia has Hornblower, who remains more than a half-century after his invention one of the best and truest fictional heroes of the British navy.

The three battles involve stealth, strength and determination, and as cannons roar, men die and pieces of both ships are torn away, you will almost feel evidence of the grand action swirling around you. I swear, by the end of one storm-pitched engagement I felt myself drenched by blood, rain and seawater, so compellingly does Forester write.

The story begins with the Lydia just short of making landfall on the west coast of Nicaragua, a long and arduous voyage around Cape Horn already behind her. Hornblower has been ordered to make contact with El Supremo, a madman with delusions of godhood, in order to help foment a rebellion against Spain and spread confusion among Napoleon's allies. Of course, alliances sometimes are as mutable as the wind, and a captain who acts after a significant reversal, even if he was following orders, might find himself in deep, uncharted waters.

The sea battles are amazing. Even the details of Lydia's refit on a remote, uninhabited island makes for good reading. And if you really want to see Hornblower discomfitted, just wait 'til Lady Barbara Wellesley -- rescued from plague-ridden Panama -- comes aboard.

This series keeps getting better and better. It is a classic truly worthy of the name.

review by
Tom Knapp

7 November 2009

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