My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book gives us Hornblower’s first outing as a full Master & Commander of his own vessel, as a commander assigned to a sloop of war in the channel blockade.
The novel takes place after the peace between England and France has broken down and Napoleon is preparing for an invasion of England. The book does a great job of showing not only the hopelessness of this prospect (there was no way to get an army across the channel in the face of England’s naval superiority) but also the precariousness of the English position. Whilst at sea they were the superior, one bad storm leaving a break in their blockage could have allowed the French army an opportunity to dash across the channel and make landful. After this, as Hornblower puts it, “the tricolour flag would fly over the tower of London”.
After the last novel, Lieutenant Hornblower, we’re used to seeing the title character from the eyes of others (in that case, Mr. Bush). We know he is intelligent, dashing, daring and all the rest, what we see in this book is how wildly insecure he is. This becomes irritating at times, but it does help to flesh out a very real character of whom we wish to read more, despite his all too human faults.
Much is also made in this novel of the system of “Prize” money given to captains during the Napoleonic wars and the disdain Hornblower has for it. I think this is perhaps overstated somewhat and starts to feel a bit preachy, particularly towards the end when Hornblower gives up a chance at hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of prize to do the “right thing” and engage a frigate with his severely underpowered and outmatched sloop. The idea that he would do this is not at issue, it was the right thing to do for the war effort, however the book does have a tendency to paint those receiving prize money as opportunistic and corrupt officers, uncaring of the overall war effort and interested simply in lining their own pockets; which in this case was most patently untrue given that the capture of the treasure fleet was a major objective of the war effort, if only to keep the money out of Napoleon’s hands.
Despite that Hornblower himself tends to become somewhat tiresome during his ‘introspective moments’, this is an entertaining book overall that paints a very human picture of a naval captain striving to do what he considers his duty and struggling with the fear that he is not up to the task that is required of him, whilst others watch the actions he considers simply “necessary” and see a remarkable and heroic man.