Alexander Kent,
Sloop of War
(Hutchinson, 1972; McBooks, 1998)

Sloop of War puts Richard Bolitho, a young British naval commander, on the deck of the sloop HMS Sparrow patroling the American coast and Caribbean during the Revolutionary War.

Alexander Kent (the pen name of British author Douglas Reeman) has written a lengthy series about Bolitho, numbering in the dozens, and this is still an early chapter in the officer's career spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It's exciting stuff that touches on a great many historical conflicts, and it stands comfortably with the novels of Forester and O'Brian, among others.

There are some significant problems with Sloop of War, however, which made it less of a pleasure to read than the previous books in this series. For instance, Bolitho's disaffected crew falls in love with its new captain a little too quickly for comfort; that kind of trust and admiration from your average British tars had to be earned through deeds, but Bolitho is the object of an immediate devotion that rings untrue. Similarly, Kent's account of a court martial -- particularly the vital but completely out of order interruption of the proceedings by an able seaman -- reads false.

From a purely technical side, Kent overguns his feisty little sloop in this story, loading it with massive cannons that would probably sink the ship as soon as they fired.

There's a three-year gap in the narrative and much of the ship-to-ship action takes place off the page, which I can only presume aided Kent from alienating his American readers by placing them on the losing side against his unbeatable Bolitho. And yes, you might think once or twice that Bolitho pulls a victory out of unbeatable odds.

Missteps aside, I won't hesitate to read the next book in the series. Kent packs his tales with adventure, and for the most part it reads well. His characters are well rounded, and Bolitho himself is a likable fellow.

Oh, and there's a romance of sorts, too. I'm not sure romance is always necessary in these naval books, but people seem to like it, so there you go.

book review by
Tom Knapp

15 September 2012

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