Honour this Day by Alexander Kent: a review

This is the weakest of Kent’s Richard Bolitho novels. We’ll discuss why in a minute.

The naval action’s really quite good. Early in the book Bolitho’s in the Caribbean commanding a small squadron assigned an impossible mission, so we get to see the old, reckless Bolitho leading a cutting out expedition despite his high rank. And the book’s final battle sees Admiral Bolitho in the Mediterranean doing battle with a Spanish fleet; the results are pretty much a smaller version of Nelson’s Trafalgar battle. (This is one of Kent’s bloodiest battle accounts, by the way.) Bolitho survives, but his flagship–his old command Hyperion–is sunk as the battle concludes.

Thing is, though, that this smaller Trafalgar occurs pretty much simultaneously with the real Trafalgar, something a knowledgable reader should see coming for the entire novel. This is the sort of thing Dudley Pope does in his Ramage novels. Don’t like it there; don’t like it here.

The book’s real problem, though, is the framing story. Sir Richard’s marriage to Belinda is failing. The causes were already known–it’s a passionless match, the relationship’s built on a fiction (Belinda looks like his first wife), Bolitho’s never home, and Belinda wants to live in London. All this we already knew; there’s nothing on the list we’d not seen in earlier novels. Belinda’s character eventually takes a nasty turn; the author really hasn’t prepared the readers for this.

Meantime a former lover, Catherine Pareja (now Lady Somervell), has re-entered the Admiral’s life. She’s at Antigua with her husband, who’s the King’s agent and more-or-less Bolitho’s superior on station. That the former lovers will argue is predictable; so is their eventual reconciliation. But Kate Somervell’s not Kate Pareja–or at least she’s not convincingly presented. The only apparent reason Richard Bolitho would love this woman is that he loved her before. That might be reason enough, but Kent’s telling simply isn’t convincing.

Anyway, we spend perhaps a hundred pages of this novel in Bolitho’s head as he sorts through these relationships–sometimes even while he’s fighting for his life. It makes for agonizing reading.

We won’t even discuss the bedroom scenes, except to say the author doesn’t do them well. We already knew that.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

A Tradition of Victory by Alexander Kent: a short review

Admiral Bolitho leads a small squadron tasked with destroying the small craft the French are building to convey an invasion force across the Channel, shortly before the anticipated Treaty of Amiens brings a temporary peace. His captains include Thomas Herrick (a commodore in this book), Francis Inch, Oliver Browne-with-an-e, John Neale, and Valentine Keen. And old Phalarope–Bolito’s frigate in To Glory We Steer–joins the fleet on location, with Adam Pascoe as first lieutenant. Things go wrong, then they go right.

There are telegraph towers, too. All of these Royal Navy series need a story involving telegraph towers. (That’s a cheap shot. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Besides the naval action, and a bit of political discussion, this book’s notable for its portrayal of Belinda Laidlaw, who’s loyal (far beyond the call of duty) and loving. At the end of the book Richard and Belinda marry.

McBooks Press (or perhaps IPG, their distributor) is the only publisher I read that routinely does scanned ebooks properly. They’ve obviously given thought to presentation, as chapter headings are deliberately (albeit oddly) formatted, nearly all scanning artifacts have been fixed, and mid-chapter text breaks are clearly indicated. The big publishers should take note, and follow suit.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Signal–Close Action! by Alexander Kent: a review

Not a review, really; just a few comments.

It’s 1798, and Richard Bolitho is Commodore commanding a small squadron in the Mediterranean Sea, tasked with figuring out what the French fleet is up to and making recommendations. The squadron consists of three 74s, a frigate, and a sloop; most are commanded by folks we’ve encountered in earlier books. Thomas Herrick’s the flag captain, George Probyn and Charles Farquhar command the other line-of-battle ships, and Francis Inch has the sloop. All in all the assignment’s a frustrating experience; while they know there’s an enemy fleet in the Med, they can’t pin down its location. (I’m leaving out a lot of detail, here, as the story’s largely about personality conflicts between the characters I’ve just mentioned.)

The alert reader will have recognized this plot is a small-scale version of Horatio Nelson’s 1798; indeed, Bolitho’s well aware of Nelson’s efforts, but circumstances–not to mention the frustration of an apparently-failed search effort–prevent the two from actually meeting. Francis Inch manages to ferry messages between the fleets, to his delight, but they’re inconsequential.

Bolitho eventually manages to communicate his belief (not quite knowledge) that the French fleet is at Aboukir Bay, so Nel can chase Admiral Brueys (and Napoleon) down and win the Battle of the Nile. Bolitho’s ships have an encounter with the French just before the main battle and are therefor too damaged to actively participate in the victory.

Incidentally, this is the novel where Herrick’s wife-to-be, Dulcie, first appears.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Command a King’s Ship by Alexander Kent: a short review

Except for the exotic location–the Malacca Strait–this is a perfectly typical novel in the Kent’s Richard Bolitho series. In fact, I’d happily recommend it on that basis: If you wanted to read exactly one Bolitho novel, Command a King’s Ship would be a fine choice. Romance, grand strategy, sea and land battles, and a bit of politics. Quite gory.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

In Gallant Company by Alexander Kent: a review

It’s fair to assume that many folks read Alexander Kent’s books largely for the action, which is dependable, quite bloody, and convincingly chaotic. These are great strengths, and enough reason to read this author. It’s also true that each book works well as a standalone novel, which is a positive trait for a writer of serial novels.

Kent’s Richard Bolitho is sort of an alternative Horatio Nelson. He has a very similar, largely concurrent, career in the Royal Navy, working his way from midshipman to admiral over the course of twenty-some novels, fighting usually in different theaters from Nel but with similar results. He’s a hero to the masses in London, inspiring to his friends and subordinates, and a bit of a loose cannon (less so than Nelson, but that is pretty much a given). Bolitho, like Nelson, has a scandalous relationship with a woman, which annoys his superiors and troubles his friends. Also like Nelson, he dies in a major battle just as victory becomes certain.

Kent–a pen name used by Douglas Reeman–wrote the first novel in this series, To Glory We Steer, in the late sixties, and I read it soon after it became available. Over the years I’ve read all the stories, many of them as they were published; indeed, I’ve read most of the earlier books several times. Obviously I like Kent’s books, but it’s occasionally difficult to say why. Kent’s only adequate at characterization and dialog, and while it’s unfair to call his plots formulaic they have a certain predictability that becomes annoying if you read three or four in quick succession. And many of the books spend too much time inside Bolitho’s head. My sense is that the author works from a checklist–there will be a big sea battle, there will be a foray on land (often, but not invariably, a cutting out effort); Bolitho will ask someone to call him “Dick” (later in the series someone will call him “Equality Dick”), Bolitho will remind everyone not to load their guns prior to the cutting out expedition, someone will say “Take that man’s name”; one of the officers will be a martinet and another will have personal troubles of some sort; a key character will die late in the story; Bolitho will see the likely outcomes of whatever’s coming better than his superiors.

This book’s certainly like that. But it’s better than most of the set, as it effectively portrays Bolitho growing into the leadership role which drives the action in subsequent novels. The peripheral characters are all quite complex and interesting enough to be convincing, regardless of the author’s weakness. And the action is logical, consistent with the story, and surprisingly convincing. Good work; well worth reading.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Trafalgar by Alan Schom: a review

This book is more about the events which led up to the Battle of Trafalgar than about the battle itself, though the battle and subsequent funeral are described in what can only be called painful detail. (YMMV.) The heart of the book, though, explores the strategic choices made on both sides of the channel in the early years of the nineteenth century. It’s a valuable presentation.

Schom’s story actually begins around 1801. Napoleon’s (eventually) failed attempt to invade England with a flotilla of relatively small craft is the main focus of the book, with a great deal of discussion of the the British government’s efforts to thwart the French invaders. Schom does this extremely well.

Many of the key figures are given fairly extensive biographical treatments. These are invariably well done, though Schom’s distaste for St. Vincent is an interesting contrast to his balanced treatment of, say, Verhuell. Villeneuve’s portrait is interesting, as Schom clearly doesn’t quite know what to make of the man.

Admiral Cornwallis, who Schom believes has been slighted by other historians, comes very close to being the hero of his tale. In this telling, the Channel Fleet’s blockade of the French ports is the key to understanding why Trafalgar occurred, and Cornwallis’ strategic genius pretty much dictated the time and location of the battle.

The book’s well researched, though there are only a handful of perfunctory footnotes; each chapter has an obviously-thorough source list which partially makes up for the footnote shortage.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Victory by Julian Stockwin: a short review

Pretty much entirely devoted to Nelson’s chase of Villenueve, with enough context to explain the importance of Trafalgar. Ends where all such novels end: In London, shortly after the great battle, with everyone not knowing how to handle the conflicting emotions generated by Nelson’s victory and Nelson’s death.

The framing stories–Kydd’s career, and Renzi’s emotional idiocy–are there, but only minor threads. Kydd’s now a post captain, and perhaps has grown up.

Nicely done.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Devil to Pay by C. Northcote Parkinson: a short review

Dull. Dreadfully dull. This is, I think, the best in Parkingson’s Richard Delancey series–but this second time through I found myself choking on the stultifying prose. There’s some good action in here, and Delancey seems like an interesting guy, but you’ve got to plow through all that leaden text.

This book is really difficult to recommend. So is the entire Delancey series.

Tnis short review was originally posted on LibraryThing.

Invasion by Julian Stockwell: a review

This is easily the best story since Tom Kydd gained promotion to the quarterdeck, and one I can happily recommend. But I’ve given other books in the series higher ratings.

The source of Kydd’s characterization weakness is his weak character–ambitious, clever, capable, and bright, to be sure, but he’s a shallow guy. This is a bit of a mystery to me, actually; his sister Cecilia’s only an occasional character in the series, but seems far more rounded. Renzi, on the other hand, is a dreadfully drawn abstraction, as I’ve complained before.

Stockwin’s dialogue, which he obviously works hard to get “right,” is unnecessarily distracting. Renzi’s odd constructions are particularly annoying, even if apparently authentic for his class and intellectual background.

There’s more story here than the earlier LT reviewers seem to acknowledge. For maybe the fourth time in the series, Kydd takes stock of his life and decides to gain control of his destiny. This time the effort seems more convincing, though I confess it’s a bit rushed. He has a serious intellectual disagreement with Renzi; before they’ve mainly disagreed about social issues, with Renzi pretty much an unquestioned conscience on morality (except when he goes silly on us). The encounter with Robert Fulton is both entertaining and frustrating, and a fairly convincing portrait.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Admiral’s Daughter by Julian Stockwin: a short review

Kydd, back at sea, is returned to command of Teazer and assigned to help guard the coast. He has some run-ins with a privateer, and an encounter or two with a master smuggler. He also gets involved with the admiral’s daughter, but — well, that would be a spoiler. Enough to say he runs afoul of gentle customs, to the dismay of Renzi and Cecelia. All hell breaks loose.

There are some absolutely delightful descriptions of life along the Cornish coast; especially interesting are contrasting views of the Polperro fishing village from the perspectives of Kydd and his man Toby Stirk.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.