Kent, Alexander. Sloop of War.

NY: Putnam, 1972.

Richard Bolitho is one of the more interesting successors to Horatio Hornblower. In fact, his invention was one of the earliest after the death of C. S. Forester, even before that of Dudley Pope’s novels about Nicholas Ramage.

After the first several books, focused on Bolitho the frigate captain, were successful, the author (who was actually Douglas Reeman) went back and wrote the history of his protagonist’s early career, beginning with his experiences as a midshipman.

The thing is, Hornblower and most of those who followed him were engaged almost entirely in the Napoleonic wars. Bolitho, the scion of an old Cornwall seafaring family, was already a lieutenant serving against the American rebels when Hornblower was born. It’s a very different war, but the author is careful to make it a conflict among individual personalities and to not alienate the American patriotic tradition unduly.

The year is 1778 and Lieut. Bolitho has not only brought in a captured prize to English Harbour in Antigua, he’s managed to pick up another prize along the way, all by himself. This is a rare feat indeed and it leads to Bolitho being given his step to Commander and an independent command in the sloop Sparrow. No more companionable competition with the other young officers in the wardroom of a ship of the line. Now he has to learn to deal with the loneliness of command, and Kent makes sure the reader understands all the psychological adjustments that life-change involves. His shallow-draft vessel can go places larger ships cannot, so he spends a good deal of time poking into creeks and coves along the American coast, but his first big action is to rescue some abandoned redcoats from the Chesapeake. (Burgoyne has surrendered at Saratoga, the British are abandoning Philadelphia, and England has serious morale problems.)

After several more adventures, including little Sparrow coming up against much larger adversaries, mostly privateers, the story jumps to 1781. As a reward for an amazing degree of success (which has also earned him some enemies, naturally), Bolitho has been advanced to Captain, though his very junior rank and the lack of any other assignment means he’s still in Sparrow. More adventures follow, which the author handles very adroitly, and the final chapter finds Bolitho and his now rather ragged command back in the Chesapeake, trying to escape De Grasse’s fleet as it arrives to pummel the British at Yorktown.

This is an above-average adventure in a lengthy series, but the reader really ought to approach it by internal chronology, beginning with Richard Bolitho, Midshipman.


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