Alexander Kent,
Richard Bolitho #20: The Darkening Sea
(Highseas, 1993; McBooks, 2000)

The Richard Bolitho series of British naval stories by Alexander Kent is a powerful collection of novels that rank among my favorites in the nautical genre.

That said, The Darkening Sea, the 20th book in the saga, is a bit dreary, even tedious, as Bolitho slogs toward yet another confrontation with the French at sea.

One might argue that Kent is as good as any at penning a ship-to-ship confrontation. He puts readers at the scene, and he doesn't hold back when describing the cost of such high-stakes combat where flying splinters pose as much damage -- if not more -- than flying cannonballs.

But a certain sameness in the way Kent approaches naval battles is further marred by the soap-opera quality of the book. We get it, Bolitho loves Lady Catherine, his third wife and fourth great romance, and we understand they can't marry because, well, he's already married and that would be awkward, besides illegal and quite scandalous.

Still, Kent doesn't need to devote quite so much ink to Bolitho's never-ceasing, moon-eyed longing for Catherine when he's at sea, and the love scenes when he's ashore feel out of place in these books. Also, Kent's attempts to make Catherine a reflection of Horatio Nelson's mistress, Lady Emma, smack of unoriginality.

Kent also needs to do something about Bolitho's failing left eye. How the entire British navy doesn't know about the infirmity is beyond me, particularly with the way he's always rubbing his eyeball in stressful situations. Just slap an eyepatch on the damn thing, Richard -- Nelson lost an eye and performed quite well regardless.

The book also focuses a lot of attention on Richard's broken friendship with Thomas Herrick; his coxswain Allday's wooing of a widowed tavern keeper; and his nephew Adam Bolitho's love for a woman married to another of his uncle's closest friends.

The sanctity of marriage doesn't seem to hold much meaning for the Bolitho clan.

The review so far will probably give you the idea I didn't really like the book. On the contrary, it's still better than a lot of the books on the market in this genre -- and there are more books about British sea officers during the Napolean wars than you might expect -- but I can't help but feel disappointed that it didn't live up to the standards previously set by Kent himself.

It's not a bad book, but it's a bit of a yawn -- a low point in the series. I look forward to more action in the books to come.

book review by
Tom Knapp

25 March 2017

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