Dudley Pope,
(Weiderfeld & Nicholson, 1965; McBooks, 2000)

Dudley Pope doesn't waste any time getting into the action.

Ramage, the first book in a series, begins with the frigate Sibella already sinking after a brutal attack from a French ship of the line. Sibella's captain and senior officers are dead; the only surviving officer is junior lieutenant Nicholas Ramage, himself badly wounded. With only a small portion of the crew still alive and able and the ship sinking fast, Ramage comes up with a plan to escape the scene, leaving only the wounded behind to be captured and, he hopes, treated for their injuries by French doctors.

Once free of the ship, Ramage decides to complete his late captain's mission to rescue a group of influential Italian aristocrats from Napoleon's advancing army. But there are other issues that face this young officer, from the inevitable court-martial for surrendering a British vessel to unexpected charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Somehow, in the midst of all that, Ramage finds time to fall in love -- and then there's another rescue to effect, when a British ship runs aground under the guns of the French invaders.

There are weaknesses here. One is Ramage's habit of day-dreaming when his attention really should be focused elsewhere; this is obviously a tool Pope uses to bring readers up to speed on important information, but it strains believability to have a man of Ramage's station drift off during combat, for instance, or while being interviewed by the esteemed Commodore Nelson. Ramage's endless stream of good luck and happy coincidences also tests the reader's credulity. Likewise, the great lengths to which the American cox'n Thomas Jackson will go to preserve Ramage's life and reputation seems unlikely, given that the two men have no real connection or even much of a history together before this book begins.

But there is plenty to like here, and I like Ramage a great deal. This is only the first book in an 18-book series, and I know already I'd love to read the lot. Ramage is a promising character with boatloads of growth potential, an interesting set of character flaws and a personal history that could stand in his way. Pope, meanwhile, has an obvious knowledge of and love for the sea, and it shines through in his writing.

There's even a nice nod to C.S. Forester, who encouraged Pope to write in this vein; Ramage, it turns out, once served with a young officer named Hornblower.

McBooks Press, only recently discovered here, is dedicated in part to producing new naval fiction and reprinting some of the classics that might have been overlooked. Ramage, first published in 1965, is among them, and I am very grateful to the folks at McBooks for bringing it to my attention.

review by
Tom Knapp

14 November 2009

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