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.