Kent, Alexander. Command a King’s Ship.

NY: Putnam, 1973.

Fans know that this author is actually Douglas Reeman, who wrote several excellent naval adventures set during World War II, in which he himself participated. “Kent” is the name under which his couple of dozen books have appeared about Richard Bolitho, a Royal Navy figure of the late 18th century, from the war in America to the early part of the Napoleonic Wars. (Bolitho is about a generation older than Hornblower or Aubrey.)

The earlier books in the series, unfortunately, are far better than the later ones (the most recent having been published in 2005), and because he has often jumped around in his hero’s career in search of an interesting setting, you can’t always tell what you’re going to get. This is the sixth book he wrote and the eighth by internal chronology, set in 1784, a year after Yorktown, and it follows immediately after the events of To Glory We Steer, his first published novel. Yes, it gets complicated. Anyway.

Like the majority of naval (and army) officers Bolitho, who is now twenty-eight, and has held three commands, has been on the beach for a year, but at least for him it wasn’t an economic hardship. He’s been looking after the family home and lands in Cornwall, though he still chafes at the lack of a commission, and he’s been regularly pestering the Powers That Be at the Admiralty. The Bolithos have been sea officers for generations; it’s what they do. And finally, he’s called in and given command of Undine, a rather new frigate, and charged with a largely diplomatic mission that will take him around the Cape and across the Indian Ocean to Madras, and then to the East Indies, where Britain is just beginning to obtain a colonial foothold and where the East India Company wants very much to expand its global trade network. His only old hands are Thomas Herrick, his first lieutenant and closest friend, who is his own age, and Allday, his somewhat older cox’n, who has attached himself firmly to the captain as servant, protector, and right-hand-man during peacetime. All the test of the ship’s company are new faces to Bolitho, as to the reader, and we get to know them as he does.

Bolitho is very much the heroic-but-humane leader and he’s often beset by doubts and the weight of responsibility, but he’s been at this since the age of twelve and he is (of course) very good at his job. He manages the Foreign Office man from Madras (and eventually has an affair with his wife), he deals with the new governor whose installation it’s up to him to secure — and who turns out to be the ex-admiral who was his own first commander — and he finally triumphs over the French frigate captain who has been working for a local, and slightly insane, strong-man near Sumatra on behalf of the French government. (The official war may have ended but the intrigue hasn’t.) The writing is generally of high quality, though the story is somewhat predictable, as are the supporting cast — but one expects that going in. The technical accuracy of the narrative, in any case, is very dependable. If you have a little experience with this genre — if you know the difference between a t’gallant and a taffrail, and what “by and large” actually means — you will have no difficulty envisioning the action as it occurs. That’s where the author’s talents lie and that’s what makes this an appealing and enjoyable yarn.


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