Alexander Kent,
Enemy in Sight!
(Hutchinson, 1970; McBooks, 1999)

Taken individually, the novels of Richard Bolitho -- a long-running series by Alexander Kent -- are top-notch adventures that are packed bow to stern with amazing nautical adventures in the ongoing wars between England and France.

Enemy in Sight! is no exception. In command of the Hyperion, an old but newly refitted ship of the line, Bolitho is ordered to join the blockade off the coast of France. When a small group of ships breaks free of the net, he joins a mission to find them -- and stop them, whatever they're up to. The adventures takes him to the Caribbean, through devastating sea battles and a dreadful march through a fetid swamp, and back again across the Atlantic, all under the eye of a peevish commodore who worries far more about his reputation, his personal safety and the nearest glass of brandy than the task at hand.

There is danger and glory aplenty, as is customary in a Bolitho tale. On its own, Enemy in Sight! is a fantastic read.

There are some problems, however, when you read the series as a whole. Kent does tend to reuse plot ideas. He loves to put Bolitho under the command of officers who are mean-spirited and/or incompetent -- in this case both -- and whose lackluster leadership Bolitho must somehow overcome. In this particular novel, I find it hard to believe Bolitho doesn't stand charged with mutiny several times over, no matter how successful his strategies proved to be.

And, while Kent writes naval battles that are brutal, bloody and tense -- never flinching when it comes to describing just how devastating the effects of cannon shots and jagged splinters can be on the flesh of hapless seamen -- he does often fling his hero into action against overwhelming odds, take him to the brink of disaster, then suddenly pull a victory out of who knows where. It sometimes strains the limits of credulity.

Finally, Bolitho suffers a terrible personal loss in this book, one that mirrors a similar event in an earlier book in the series. In the previous case, readers got to know the individual involved fairly well, and it hurt to read it. In this case, the character -- I'm avoiding spoilers here -- is almost unknown to us, so the impact is minimal.

I've been reading this series a few books at a time, with long breaks between them. As such, I've enjoyed the experience tremendously, even as I realize the problems mentioned above. I believe the flaws would be much more intrusive if I attempted to read the series in a row.

book review by
Tom Knapp

15 March 2014

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