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.

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3 Responses to In Gallant Company by Alexander Kent: a review

  1. Barry Short says:

    I have read this series three times now,together with O’Brien’s, Forester’s,Stockwin’s and Pope’s series. My only disappointment with Kent is that he obviously was not able to complete another book, as the end of “In the King’s Name” would strongly suggest that he did intend to do so, perhaps to complete the series. There is no doubt I really enjoyed reading his work in spite of this.
    I am glad I found this site to express this comment.

  2. Jerome Koch says:

    I read my first Bolitho novel almost 40 years ago. I very much enjoyed the series. I understood that Kent was romanticizing history a bit, but there were a number of Bolitho books that I think were very well written. My biggest critique as a non-sailor, was following the ship action. In one paragraph the ship is sailing northeast on a starboard tack. A few paragraphs later, the ship is sailing south. Kent, at times, would leave out details such as wearing ship.

    I stopped reading the series about the time Bolitho was re-married. Most of the real historical action was over (at least from the naval perspective), and Kent had to create secondary theaters and less dramatic action. I thought perhaps old age was catching up to Kent and he was becoming far to introspective with Bolitho.

    Doug Reeman died a few months ago at 92. He lived a long and interesting live. I will put his sea stories up there with Forrester et als

  3. joel says:

    My thanks to both of you for your comments, which of course I largely agree with. Like both of you, I’m sad that he’s gone, but it’s been clear for some time that he was near the end.

    Thanks, again, Mr. Reeman. I’ve spent a lot of time in your company, and never regretted it.

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