Alexander Kent,
Richard Bolitho #18: The Only Victor
(Highseas, 1990; McBooks, 2000)

Firmly settled into a new life with his lovely mistress Catherine -- and with his estranged wife, Belinda, maintaining a hateful distance from them in London -- Richard Bolitho has relaxed into a happier, more peaceful life that is a welcome change from the grimmer outlook that darkened recent books in the series. But the war with France rages on, and duty will call Bolitho and his men to key strategic hotspots as far removed from each other as South Africa and Denmark before this book draws to its conclusion.

The book opens with Bolitho, in the frigate Truculent, en route to the southern reaches of Cape Town, where a key port must be wrenched from Dutch control. There he makes the acquaintance of a gallant commander who lost half of his face in an earlier battle, and he argues tactics with the military ground forces who see the navy in an ancillary capacity at best.

Then, after an interlude in England, Bolitho is sent on a diplomatic mission to Denmark, where an alliance -- and a mighty fleet -- is sought by both the British and the French. It's not a mission that should have involved cannon fire, but somehow the French become aware of their movements....

Yet another interlude later and Bolitho is back in Denmark, where the British army and navy are attempting to force Danish capitulation. When Bolitho learns that a 20-ship supply convoy -- led by an old friend, Rear-Admiral Thomas Herrick -- has been waylaid by the French, he'll set sail in his new ship of the line, the 94-gun Black Prince, to try and save them.

Much of Bolitho's attention in this book is spent on his vision, which has been failing for some time after an injury in battle in a previous book, and which threatens to cost him his sight entirely. He also spends much thought on the damage done to a once-close friendship, seemingly damaged beyond repair.

As for his relationship with Catherine -- whose husband, like Bolitho's wife, remains a thorn in the side of their potential bliss -- the story takes perhaps too much inspiration from the real-life relationship (and accompanying scandal) between Horatio Nelson and the Lady Emma Hamilton. And the author perhaps devotes too much attention to Richard and Catherine's moon-eyed desire for one another and their heartbreak each time circumstances force them to part. Yes, yes, we get it, they love each other madly, want to have sex with each other all the live-long day and miss each other terribly when duty calls Bolitho to sea, and they give not a fig for the controversy they cause just by being together. Fortunately, both characters are extremely likable, which helps to move these portions of the book along more swiftly. Now let's move on and focus on the war!

That niggling concern aside, this book is packed with action on multiple fronts. Bolitho continues to prove himself a fine naval leader with a knack for wresting victory from the jaws of defeat. He, like author Alexander Kent, understands ships and men and what each is capable of under fire. Equally important, Kent gives us a broad array of supporting characters, many of whom are naval officers and simple seamen who would gladly follow Bolitho into hell if need be.

book review by
Tom Knapp

17 December 2016

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