Pope, Dudley. Ramage’s Challenge.

London: Alison, 1985.

This is the 15th book in the series about the adventures in the Napoleonic wars of Captain Lord Nicholas Ramage, RN, which appears to be slowly running out of steam. The first third of the book is mostly a detailed travelogue of Tuscany, where the author, like his protagonist, obviously acquired many nostalgic memories. Unfortunately, this consists mostly of inflicting long strings of Italian place names on the impatient reader, and not much else. Pope seems determined to note the identity of every village, hill, and stream he can locate. And, just in case you weren’t paying attention, he points all this out numerous times.

And why all this? Because Ramage has secret orders from the Admiralty to attempt to rescue a number of high-ranking British hostages who were trapped on the Continent when war broke out again between Britain and France, after eighteen months of carefully orchestrated peace following the Treaty of Amiens in 1803. There’s a clutch of senior admirals, generals, and titled noblemen tucked away somewhere near the coast — and since Ramage knows the country, speaks Italian, and commands a French-built frigate that might just escape notice, he’s it. He’s also returning to the shore where he rescued the beautiful young Marchesa di Volterra back in the series’ first book (they had a lengthy affair but now they’re just good friends), and whose nephew is now his midshipman. (Apparently the only “volunteer” aboard, which seems very unlikely for a frigate.) Ramage also lost his new wife, whose ship back to England from the Caribbean was presumably captured or sunk in the last book. And he rehearses the circumstances and possible fates of both women in his life over and over and over, on about every third page. (In real life, Ramage’s ability to command a warship would be badly compromised by this constant remorseful dwelling on the tragedies in his life, but whatever.)

Pope also seems determined to use his narrative as a teaching tool for the nautically uninformed, to the extend that the experienced reader will become annoyed and impatient. Is it really necessary for the captain to remind himself that the four little wooden wheels on the gun carriages, which press such weight down upon the deck, are known as “trucks”? Really? In real life, this was just part of every sailor-man’s mental furniture.

So Ramage takes a party ashore and marches to the small, fortified town where the hostages are supposedly being kept, but then things get complicated. I won’t spoil the plot by adding more details, except to note that this is the only story in the series where Ramage and his crew don’t come under fire from an enemy ship — and they only fire their own guns a few times, at a target that can’t shoot back. There are some good scenes, but Ramage also seems to be far too matey with his officers and men, especially compared to Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower, Richard Bolitho, Thomas Kydd, Alan Lewrie, or any of the other protagonists of the numerous Napoleonic naval adventures I’ve enjoyed over the years. Well, there are only a couple more volumes to go, so I suppose I’ll finish the series — but it isn’t nearly as much fun as it used to be.


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