Kent, Alexander. To Glory We Steer.

NY: Putnam, 1968.

By internal chronology, this book ended up being the fifth in the lengthy series featuring Richard Bolitho of the Royal Navy, but it was actually the first one written, so this is where the author (who was really Douglas Reeman) first delineated the major continuing characters. Kent/Reeman was already well known for his World War II naval thrillers, but this was his first venture into earlier history and he nailed it from the outset.It’s 1782 and Bolitho is the second son of a very old naval family of Cornwall with a big, old house in Falmouth. Most series of this type concentrate on the Napoleonic wars, but Kent decided to begin a generation earlier, with the American Revolution — which, to be fair, was in many ways a sideshow to Britain’s much deeper conflict with France, who accordingly aligned themselves with the colonial rebels for their own reasons. Things are winding down now, with the surrender at Yorktown (Bolitho was present there as a very junior captain) and now he’s made post and is caught up in the continuing British-French struggle in the Caribbean, culminating in the Battle of the Saintes. He’s given Phalarope, a bad-luck ship whose previous captain avoided battle and found himself cashiered as a result, and whose first lieutenant is a semi-pathological tyrant who quickly comes to despise Bolitho for his natural humanity as well as his charisma as a leader.

The admiral in charge of the squadron at Antigua doesn’t have much use for the ship, either, and sends it off on lonely patrol duty — after dumping a party of troublemaking crew on Bolitho to make up his always insufficient numbers. Several of the men thus acquired will turn out to be a major problem, while several others, and some of his junior officers, will become fixtures in Bolitho’s later career.

The author is extremely knowledgeable about naval matters, regardless of the period, and was also very familiar with the eastern Caribbean, so the verisimilitude in the story is very high indeed. Bolitho is also a very nicely drawn and fully realized character, a mix of caring leader and strict disciplinarian, a skilled tactician as well as a natural strategist at a time when originality was neither expected nor desired among naval officers. He’s also perfectly aware of the role sheer luck plays in warfare and in the ups and downs of a professional soldier’s or sailor’s career. He shares many attributes, of course, with Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey and all the others, or there would be no fun in reading about him. An excellent series for the fan of naval adventure in the age of sail. And now you can go back and begin the series with Richard Bolitho, Midshipman, set in 1772 at the beginning of the character’s own career.

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Published in: on 1 October 2015 at 2:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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