by C.S. Forester
Surprise! In this book Horatio Hornblower is made a commodore (a Captain, by rank, placed by orders in command over another captain and/or a squadron of ships). Now in his mid-thirties, the great strategist is starting to go bald and gray, getting a slight paunch, not as strong or agile or sharp-eyed as he used to be, in fact rather delicate physically for how hard he pushes himself, and the history of the western world depends to a certain degree on how he carries out his orders. He is put in a position where, if he fails, literally the entire continent of Europe will be allied with Napoleon against solitary England. Or, if he succeeds, he could turn back the tide of the war and send Napoleon into retreat from the north and east, even while Hornblower's brother-in-law Wellington harasses the French from the south and west.
His orders come just as he's beginning to get restless in his new life as a landed aristocrat, married to Lady Barbara and raising his cherubic son Richard (who is the issue of his first marriage to the late Maria), served by his faithful coxswain Brown, and admired by everybody. After six months of very happy marriage, he nevertheless welcomes orders making him commodore over a squadron of six ships--one ship of the line, two sloops, two bomb-ketches, and a cutter, respectively, the Nonsuch, the Lotus and Raven, the Harvey and Moth, and the Clam, commanded by a captain, two commanders, and three lieutenants who all get the honor of being called "Captain" while they're in command of a ship (just as he gets to be called "Commodore" even though he doesn't technically outrank Bush, whom he hand-picks to be captain of the Nonsuch).
During the course of the mission, perhaps because of marriage or advancing years or the success of his career, Hornblower starts to lose some of his edge of snappish indifference toward others and develops a warm fondness for the young officers under him, particularly Vickery of Lotus and Mound of Harvey. Their mission: to sail up into the Baltic, that northern sea between Scandinavia and the shoulder of Eastern Europe, and blockade enemy ports while trying to enlist the doubtfully neutral Sweden and Russia into being allies of England against Bonaparte. His exploits begin when his squadron meets an English merchant vessel behaving oddly, and that leads him to attack a French privateer in Swedish waters, which has remarkable effects in his diplomacy with the Swedes. Then he has the embarrassing honor to be treated as a very distinguished guest at a banquet given by the Czar of Russia, Alexander, whom he eloquently persuades to fight against Bonaparte (and he still finds time to thwart an assassination attempt and have an affair with a sultry Countess--either he has a weakness for Countesses or they have a weakness for him!).
He wreaks havoc on shipping in the Prussian port of Koenigsberg, then in a series of daring exploits (some of which don't turn out exactly as planned, and one of which results in the tragic death of someone he cares about) he helps the city of Riga repel the advance of French and Prussian soldiers marching on St. Petersburg. Basically his daring inventiveness and quick thinking turn a hopeless siege defense into a brilliant rout and not only gives Napoleon's army almost their first taste of defeat, but also manages to snatch some of Napoleon's allies away from him during the retreat.
The strain of all this takes a massive toll on Hornblower, physically; as the tide is turning towards triumph largely on account of him, he undergoes a physical collapse due to typhus fever made worse by fatigue. But unlike tens of thousands of others, he survives--perhaps due to the faithful ministrations of Brown--and after a period of convalescence in Koenigsberg and on the cutter Clam he finally makes it home to the wife and son he hasn't seen for eight months.
Obviously this is fictionalized history. Since there was no Horatio Hornblower in real life, you must read this understanding that he obviously didn't play such a huge role in the war against Napoleon. But it's an improvement on history, I'd say. If Hornblower had been on the scene at that time, this is what he might have done and the part he might have played. One of the soldiers he works with in this book is Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military theorist who bolted from Napoleon's side (risking hanging for desertion or treason) to fight on the side of freedom. I seem to recall in the naval film Crimson Tide the skipper and executive officer of an American nuclear sub carried on a running conversation on the military theories of Von Clausewitz. Of course I'm sure the admirals and some of the captains and a lot of the political figures Hornblower meets really existed historically, not least of all Czar Alexander, who is depicted as a bright and rather sensitive young man who is forced into the position of being an all-powerful despot in a line of emperors who were all, sooner or later, assassinated. Fortunately Alexander never finds out how close he came to being assassinated by a treacherous member of Hornblower's staff!
Besides treachery in his own staff, he also has to deal with the incompetence of one of the captains under him, the heavy personal blow of the death of another, and the necessity of trying new and unfamiliar tactics, such as firing mortars from the deck of a bomb-ketch, rigging "camels" to the side of a ship (a device that allows it to sail in extremely shallow water), enduring an evening at the ballet in spite of his tone deafness and the flirtation of the countess he has already slept with, only now with her husband right next to her. He even leads a charge on horseback, leading Russian soldiers who can't understand a word he says, and has the horse shot out from under him. And Hornblower isn't known for his riding skills, you know.
But the big difference is that now, instead of being ordered into risky action, Hornblower is the one ordering others into action and waiting anxiously until (if) they return. He continues to show imagination and brilliance in strategy and tactics, and he does have a few chances to demonstrate his physical courage, but now in his unaccustomed role of larger command he develops a sort of father-son relationship with the officers under him who must now execute his plans for him, while he is being sought out for honor and respect and entertainment and advice by the high and mighty of the Russian Empire. It's a neat thing to see.
The only thing to quibble about is Hornblower's sexual morals; for all his sense of honor and rigid self-control, he doesn't hesitate to sleep with a married woman even though he himself is married to the woman he truly, madly, deeply loves. He was more faithful to his first wife, whom he never loved really, and who was actually dead by the time he saw fit to cheat on her (with that Viscountess, Marie, in France), and he had some degree of conscience trouble about that, though not necessarily on account of his unfaithfulness. In this affair, though, his only regrets afterward are the flea bites that result and the embarrassing night at the ballet in the presence of the countess' husband. Apparently this man, who is so reluctant to indulge in the intimacy of friendship even with Bush whom he admits to himself to be his best friend, has no problem with enjoying the fact once pointed out to him that women find him easy to love.
Recommended Age: 14+
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