Alexander Kent,
Form Line of Battle!
(Hutchinson, 1969, McBooks, 1999)

Relying on French royalists in Toulon, the British military is attempting to oust revolutionaries from France. Richard Bolitho, captain of the 74-gun ship of the line Hyperion, is supporting the cause by taking a key Mediterranean island that, while barren and dry, has strategic value. Of course, it's already occupied by the enemy, and they have two big forts to keep ships at bay.

That doesn't stop Bolitho, although his Spanish allies pay the price for their hubris. The next plan is to take another French coastal town and strengthen the British position on the mainland -- but Bolitho, a seemingly brilliant and very lucky naval commander, is not in charge of the operation, and things are not destined to go well.

Well, of course. It is, after all, only 1793, and England and France have a great deal of war remaining between them for things to run smooth so soon. And, of course, it's often the way for naval protagonists to have foul-tempered and/or incompetent commanders above them -- just one more difficulty to overcome.

Alexander Kent continues his series with Form Line of Battle! It is as engrossing as earlier books in the series, although some of his victories here do seem a little convenient. The climactic scene in particular -- well, you know he's going to pull a victory out of his inevitable defeat, but I'm not sure exactly how. Did the French just ... give up? Because, um ... Bolitho?

While it seems Kent might have extricated his hero from a tough situation with a little authorial license, there's no denying the book has an abundance of fine seamanship and thrilling battles on land and water. And, while I don't remember Bolitho being quite so prickly with his officers before, his mood softens a bit with the introduction of sudden, unexpected romance in his life.

But I'd caution readers not to expect to get to know Bolitho's new intended very well. Characterization is light -- a common failing among Bolitho's immediate circle of supporting characters -- and she pales in our knowledge of her when compared to the captain's earlier, tragic love, Viola. Of course, Kent wrote those books later, even though they took place earlier in Bolitho's career, so possibly he developed a little more flair for his cast. Even so, they fall in love with little provocation or opportunity, and their narrative doesn't ring true.

Kent has many strengths beyond characterization, and the book is enjoyable despite some flaws. The Bolitho books may not equal Hornblower, Aubrey or even Ramage in my favor, but the series is well worth reading nonetheless.

book review by
Tom Knapp

25 January 2014

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