Douglas Reeman,
Royal Marines Saga #1: Badge of Glory
(Highseas, 1982; McBooks, 2002)

In many novels of the British navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Royal Marines are a vital cog in some missions but, for the most part, are minor additions to the plot after the naval officers and seamen themselves.

In Badge of Glory, the first book in a series about a career marine family, the focus is sharply drawn to these scarlet-coated soldiers at sea.

There's a lot of harrowing action packed into this book.

The marines' desperate defense of a post on the African coast is a heart-stopping narrative that could have served well as the climax of the book. With Douglas Reeman (aka Alexander Kent) at the helm, however, it's an early plot point, with much more to come.

These gallant men in their scarlet coats battle slavers, both native and otherwise, against overwhelming odds in an ongoing series of campaigns that devastate their ranks. And, if that's not enough, they are quickly shipped out to battle Russian troops in the Crimean.

Our hero, Captain Philip Blackwood of the Royal Marines, is the sort of man who leads from the front lines, and he takes his lumps along with his men. He also takes a hit or two on the personal front -- his father's failing health, his stepmother's machinations, his half brother's rakish attitude toward the service (and other men's wives), to say nothing of a few personality conflicts with superior officers and, of course, the lass who stole his heart before falling prey to the slavers.

You also come to know the men around Blackwood, both his superiors in rank and the men who serve beneath him, and the fates that befall each in the various episodes of furious action.

The book also deals with the obvious benefits, in terms of speed, navigation and strategy, of the newfangled steamships as opposed to the slower, statelier wind-driven wooden ships that still make up the majority of the British fleet. Blackwood finds himself posted to both types of vessels during the course of this book, and he notes the benefits and failings of both.

For instance, a powerful steam-driven vessel is poised to make short work of a small Russian fleet until a mechanical failure leaves it easy prey for its foes. On the other hand, the engine allows a similar vessel to surge up the coast of a West African river where ships relying solely on wind are left floundering at the river's mouth.

But the reader's attention here is first and foremost on the battles, both on land and sea, and the marines are at the forefront throughout. The battles are fierce, gritty and heart-stopping, and you feel the battle swirl around you with Reeman's exciting prose.

book review by
Tom Knapp

16 December 2017

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