C.S. Forester,
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
(Michael Joseph, 1948; Back Bay, 1998)

Fate led me to begin the Hornblower series at the wrong place and time.

As I mentioned in my previous review of Hornblower & the Hotspur, I fell into this series because of my fondness for Patrick O'Brian's novels, a curiosity about the highly acclaimed series that preceded it by C.S. Forester and the timely arrival of Hotspur in my stack of books to review. Unfortunately, the book falls in the early midpoint of the 11-book series, and it was not a good place to pick up the saga without knowing more about the events that brought young Horatio to this point in his naval career.

So, back to the beginning. I am setting out to read the novels in their chronological order -- which is not, by the way, the order in which Forester wrote them.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower begins at about the time Horatio takes his first step aboard the Justinian, his first naval posting. The young officer in training is awkward, unsteady and unsure of himself, and he doesn't make friends easily. But he is passingly brilliant when it comes to naval mathematics, and he is possessed of superior bravery and cunning that rise to the surface at opportune times. He is, on occasion, downright lucky. He is, at the same time, uncertain and burdened with an overblown sense of duty and guilt. Altogether, these qualities combine to Hornblower an auspicious start to his career.

Midshipman is told in a series of 10 episodes, each of which is unrelated and yet which flow in an even progression through Hornblower's midshipman years. There is plenty of action as he learns the ropes, ranging from a duel with a shipboard bully, an incursion onto French soil, a failed test, a cattle ship and a period of captivity in Spain.

And, all told, it is a thoroughly pleasurable read. Hornblower, far from a lofty hero, is someone readers can more easily identify with and enjoy. I look forward to accompanying him on the rest of his coming adventures.

review by
Tom Knapp

8 August 2009

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