Thursday, December 3, 2009

THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War is a 1974 science fiction novel by Joe Haldeman. It has been released in several different editions; I am specifically reviewing Haldeman’s “definitive” 1997 version. Here, everyman William Mandella is conscripted into an interstellar war, and finds that because of time dilation caused by space travel at near-light speeds, hundreds of years have passed each time he returns to Earth.

Haldeman’s imaginative use of hard science fiction is refreshing in these Star Trek times, where things like time dilation and the laws of physics in general are ignored whenever convenient. In this short novel, Haldeman does a very nice job of making the reader feel that centuries really have passed, and of exploring the inevitable alienation Mandella feels in a way the reader can relate to. Haldeman’s social commentary, which is generally centered around future shock, is thought-provoking, and The Forever War’s take on the societal future of homosexuality is unique (get ready, Christian right).

The Forever War is plainly anti-war, but not in an obnoxiously overt way; it is widely considered to be based on Haldeman’s own Vietnam War experience. Certainly it dwells at length on the tedium and futility of war. In fact, the tedium of the war occasionally becomes the tedium of the book. This isn’t a long novel, but the pace could have been better even so. The grunt’s-eye view of battle might be realistic, but it often isn’t all that interesting.

Haldeman’s writing style helps the novel. More often than you’d hope, he throws out a sentence that’s a real clunker, but his broad-strokes approach fits what he’s trying to do here and leaves plenty of room for the reader’s imagination (in fact, the lack of detail and explanation only adds to Mandella’s displacement). And the novel is accessible enough not to be pigeonholed as strictly “military sci-fi.”

On the whole, The Forever War is an interesting, imaginative, accessible piece of science fiction.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) is Seth Grahame-Smith’s reworking of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1813). Here, Grahame-Smith has retained the original story but has populated Austen’s world with the living dead, and has turned all the characters into ninjas. It would be good for me to point out here that I’m not a huge Austen fan, although I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, and that I do tend to enjoy the zombie genre. Nevertheless, this book is a complete failure in every way.

Grahame-Smith changes Austen’s famous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” to, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” If you are that rare sort of person who is older than fifteen and still finds such a thing terribly clever, you might enjoy this book.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is so bad as to spawn innumerable ironic references to the old cliché that Austen is spinning in her grave. And she should be – I would. But is it the concept or the execution? Obviously we aren’t taking this kind of thing seriously, and it’s not like we expect this to be, well, Jane Austen or anything. Grahame-Smith copies and pastes Austen where he can, and apes her style when he can’t. The effect is that we get all of the tiresomeness of Austen minus nearly all her cleverness, plus a heaping helping of Grahame-Smith’s own copious banality. Any fool can take someone else’s work and ham-handedly sprinkle random references to “the deadly arts” and “the sorry stricken” (not to mention kindergarten-age bathroom “humor”) all through it – but it doesn’t make it entertaining. The Austen fan may often feel, and rightly so, that Grahame-Smith just doesn’t “get” the original novel, which might not have been such a problem if the book had been the slightest bit funny, which it most certainly is not. And why are we capitalizing “katana” every time?

Much could be forgiven if the zombie mayhem was good zombie mayhem, or even mayhem of any kind. But the zombies are uninspired – they’re just there, popping up to be slaughtered from time to time for no reason other than that, after all, this is a zombie book. None of the zombie combat is particularly interesting either.

None of this necessarily means that two such disparate genres as zombie horror and eighteenth-century romance cannot be successfully combined (although it does seem unlikely as long as one’s target audience is adult). But that certainly is not the case here – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fails utterly on every front. Spin, Jane, spin.


Monday, October 12, 2009


It is beneficial at times to step away from our classics of literature, to take them down from their high pedestals and look at them without pretension. No novel, no matter how well-regarded, is universally esteemed – Twain, Emerson, and Charlotte Bronte all savaged Pride and Prejudice in print – so let us, for a few moments, stop treating it as holy writ and just look at it as a novel, at how it holds up to a modern casual reader.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is Jane Austen’s novel of manners – it thoroughly explores the ins, outs and economics of nineteenth-century courtship. The novel’s central character is Elizabeth Bennet, one of five daughters, whose family lives in a country village. Two wealthy, eligible bachelors move to town, and romance, confusion and animosity ensue.

Austen populates her novel with all manner of flawed characters. Many of them are annoying – that is, they behave badly and are antagonistic toward the main characters – but they all show at least some depth. No one here is without flaw, but no one here is without virtue, either (except Mr. Collins, the most ludicrous of them all). And this is why the novel works: because Austen treats her characters and their social milieu gently, delicately (well, except Mr. Collins). If she had done otherwise, if she had been more cutting, she would have lost the sympathy in the reader that many of these characters engender.

To the modern audience, Austen’s plotting is rather sluggish, although it must be recalled that novels moved at a rather more leisurely pace then. At any rate it often seems that there is one too many side plots, or perhaps one too many visits to relatives, and there are patches that can be quite hard to get through. But you don’t go to Austen for plot – you go to her for clever dialogue, for a delightful turn of phrase. That is what she thrives at, and that is what she is best remembered for. And in spite of the novel’s overlength, Austen delivers a full and completely satisfying payoff. Rarely is a happy ending so fulfilling, and it may not be until the last few pages of the book that it becomes evident to the reader how masterfully Austen has set it up. And this is a large reason why the novel has such enduring appeal.

Much of the nuance in Pride and Prejudice may be lost on casual modern readers. For example, the character of Mrs. Bennet is the object of great scorn from many readers, and this has only been exacerbated by the film adaptations of the novel. But while marrying for love is the norm today, then, it was not; Mrs. Bennet is the only one looking out for the Bennet family’s financial future.

Pride and Prejudice is, on the whole, a satisfactory and clever novel, and, at present, one whose merits are diminished mostly by readers too far removed to understand it in its fullness, or whose tastes have diverged too far.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

DRAGONS OF THE HOURGLASS MAGE by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragons of the Hourglass Mage is a 2009 Dragonlance novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. It is Volume III of the Lost Chronicles series, and it relates what Raistlin was up to during the events of Dragons of Spring Dawning (1985). Raistlin travels to Neraka, where he pits various factions against each other to create intrigue and make himself a major player.

Just like the other novels in the Lost Chronicles series, this story is unnecessary. And it doesn’t give us enough to justify its existence. Nothing happens here that we didn’t know about and also need to know about. We don’t get a good exploration of Raistlin himself (trying to get inside his head, which this book doesn’t do a good job of anyway, just takes away from his mystique). Early, there’s what appears to be some clarification about the relationship between Raistlin and Fistandantilus, but by the end, it’s more muddled than when it began.

The book’s flaws are extensive. Supporting characters might as well have “supporting character” stamped on their foreheads. We get some truly ridiculous expository monologues from a number of characters. And quite a bit here breaks with events of older, better novels. As usual for a Wizards of the Coast book, the editing is sub-par. And the novel features an inexplicable epidemic of inappropriately used semicolons. But all that said, Dragons of the Hourglass Mage is still an enjoyable read, mostly because it’s just nice to see Raistlin again.

In a book full of “evil” characters, none of them seem particularly evil, and it feels like Raistlin is choosing not between the lesser of evils, but between “good” evil and “bad” evil, and that works about as well as it sounds. Raistlin himself is uncharacteristically good-natured here (while remaining somewhat abrasive). Throughout the Dragonlance books, Weis accomplished the difficult task of making an unapologetically self-serving and ruthless character sympathetic. But here, even with his political machinations, Raistlin is genuinely making friends and playing nice. That’s not the Raistlin people paid to see.

Dragons of the Hourglass Mage manages to be simultaneously enjoyable and disappointing (because Raistlin is such a great character – at least in other books), and it’s definitely for Dragonlance fans only.



Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a 2007 children’s illustrated novel by Jeff Kinney, and the first in the eponymous series. Greg Heffley, an awkward seventh grader, struggles to adapt to middle school and life in general. The book is presented as his journal.

Kinney’s illustrations, which appear on just about every page, are what make the book work. The characters are barely more than stick figures, but each is distinctly distinguishable from the rest. The pictures flesh out the book to a necessary degree, and contain much of the book’s humor.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is never particularly funny, although it’s just about always amusing enough to keep the pages turning. The book’s appeal to kids and adults comes primarily from its easy relatability. Just about everyone has experienced some of the awkward family, school and adolescent moments that Greg has.

Much has been made of how Diary of a Wimpy Kid is “realistic fiction.” And at its most realistic, the book is quite enjoyable. Yet Kinney often stretches beyond what could conceivably called realism in repeated attempts to make scenes funnier. This typically has the opposite effect – events are obviously contrived, the reader can no longer relate, and in these moments, the book falls flat (although this probably won’t bother kids much). In any event, the book is such a fast, disposable read that its flaws don’t matter a whole lot.

On the whole, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is mildly amusing for both kids and adults, and it’s something most anyone can relate to, at least a little bit.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1994) collects issues 5, 6, 16, and Annuals 1 and 2 from volume 2 of DC Comics’ Star Trek: The Next Generation. It includes three stories by longtime Star Trek writer Michael Jan Friedman and one by John de Lancie (who played Q in various Trek series), with art by Pablo Marcos, Gordon Purcell, Matt Haley, Peter Krause, and Carlos Garzon. In this collection, Geordi and Riker encounter old flames, Dr. Crusher has a birthday, Picard turns into a goat and has another encounter with Q, and Riker teaches a history lesson. TNG writer and producer Jeri Taylor has contributed the book’s introduction, wherein she talks about her involvement with the show and says virtually nothing about the comics.

Somewhat surprisingly, de Lancie’s story (“The Gift”) is the most interesting, although it takes its sweet time to get going (not surprisingly, it prominently features Q). Friedman’s stories are adequate at best – they would have made for fairly mediocre television episodes. Exacerbating the problem are the flow issues in Friedman’s stories – the comic book medium doesn’t lend itself well to the amount of exposition that a typical TNG story features.

The art here is decent – characters are mostly recognizable and don’t suffer too terribly from comic book over-muscleization. The book is garishly colored, though, in the manner of the day, and the backgrounds (which often feel somewhat sparse) suffer as a result.

So these are the “best” stories this series had to offer? Really? DC’s Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for 80 issues plus 6 annuals. If these stories are the best, then the comic must have been poor indeed.



Star Trek: Countdown (2009), a prequel to the 2009 Star Trek film, collects the four-issue comic miniseries of the same name. The story is by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Mike Johnson and Tim Jones, and the art is by David Messina. The primary function of this prequel is to provide back-story for Nero, who gets short shrift in the film.

Eight years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, Spock and the Romulan miner Nero work to prevent a star that is going supernova from destroying Romulus (and the rest of the galaxy). Aided by the Enterprise-E (captained by a resurrected Data) and Jean-Luc Picard, now the ambassador to Vulcan, they get bogged down in Romulan and Vulcan politicking.

Star Trek: Countdown feels rushed. There’s a lot going on, and the comic often focuses on the less interesting aspects (like all the political bickering). As a result, the focus on character is diminished. Even Nero, one of the book’s main characters, doesn’t get a worthy treatment. His shift from loving miner to power-mad tyrant is quick and glossy. And beyond Nero’s initial relationship with Spock, Countdown gives us little that we couldn’t figure out from the movie.

Other characters from The Next Generation pop up here and there, mostly for no good reason. All of the characters present from TNG, including Data and Picard, are just there to add a few familiar faces. These are well-developed characters whose personalities have been thoroughly explored in hundreds of Star Trek episodes, but here they are completely unremarkable and totally interchangeable. This is a distinct failure to link the new film to the world of TNG.

Messina’s art is fine, even if his people look a bit angular at times. But the familiar characters are mostly recognizable and the ships look good, and that’s what counts. Countdown’s coloring is murky; this is an obvious attempt to give the book a grimmer, more serious tone. But instead, it impairs the art and gives the reader the distinct impression that it’s trying too hard.

Star Trek: Countdown is not officially canon, although there are no canonical red flags. But it really doesn’t matter, because this book really doesn’t matter. It adds little to the new film, and it adds practically nothing to the world of The Next Generation.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis

Arrowsmith is a 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis (with considerable contributions from Dr. Paul de Kruif); it won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize, but Lewis rejected the award because the thought it promoted pandering in writers. The book chronicles the life of Martin Arrowsmith, a young medical student who tries to make it both as a practicing doctor and as a research scientist.

Arrowsmith is always readable but never particularly interesting. It is rather loosely plotted (although for Lewis it’s rather tightly plotted). Martin Arrowsmith is a headstrong, bridge-burning, tantrum-throwing idealist, and Lewis generates most of the novel’s tension and conflict by throwing the most obnoxious, contrary characters Lewis can think up at him, and letting nature take its course. Much has been made about Arrowsmith being a “heroic” character; this is obviously debatable based on how one defines “heroic”. Lewis certainly makes him a hero of medical idealism; but at the same time Arrowsmith is never particularly sympathetic.

The novel is one great commentary on the medical and scientific professions. In fact, any time Lewis shifts the narrative focus away from Arrowsmith to other characters (which seems to happen unnecessarily often), the reader gets nothing but commentary. How applicable are these comments today? Well, that’s nearly impossible for anyone outside the medical field to say.

Today, Arrowsmith is likely to have an extremely limited appeal: those interested in medicine should find it quite engaging, but few others will.


Monday, July 6, 2009


Assassin’s Apprentice (1995) is the first novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer fantasy trilogy. Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne, is taken as a child to the royal court, where he is taught all manner of things, including the art of assassinry, and where he gets embroiled in some political intrigue.

For someone as talented and clever as Fitz is supposed to be (Hobb has made him an extremely articulate narrator), he’s frequently distractingly slow on the uptake, especially when it comes to recognizing people the reader has identified pages earlier. On the whole, Fitz is fairly sympathetic because of his circumstances, but he isn’t particularly likeable – not because he’s an assassin, but because he’s so darn namby-pamby (there’s precious little assassination going on here anyway).

The pacing of Assassin’s Apprentice is tough to deal with. The novel gets off to a bad slow beginning, settles into something of a groove, then relapses into a series of fits and starts. Considering how much political intrigue Hobb has set up, it’s surprising how little actually happens. One reason for this is that many of the characters, including Fitz himself, are so very passive. Another is that Hobb doesn’t do a great job establishing place, especially when the location changes.

Hobb writes in the stiff, pretentious, flowery manner reserved almost exclusively for the fantasy genre – that can (and unfortunately must) be overlooked in most modern fantasy novels. More egregious is Hobb’s choice of narrative mode. Assassin’s Apprentice is in the first person, and it often borders on first-person omniscient. Fitz recounts his childhood like he was the most observant six year old in the world, with a photographic memory to boot (Fitz then skips over some boring and unimportant parts of the story with a few jarring I can’t remembers). Fitz chronicles the thoughts and feelings of others, and even the actions of those where he isn’t present. (A great deal of this cannot be attributed to Fitz’s use of “the Skill”.) It is as if Hobb selected first-person, got stuck, and plowed on through anyway. 

All of this is rather a shame since Hobb’s scenario has potential; it’s too bad the story and the writing are so lacking. In spite of the reader’s best efforts to immerse himself (or herself) in the story, Assassin’s Apprentice is just too problematic, and readers may well decide they aren’t interested in the sequels, both of which are considerably longer than this one.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009


The Hornblower Companion: An Atlas and Personal Commentary on the Writing of the Hornblower Saga, with Illustrations and Maps by Samuel Bryant (1964) – well, that about sums it up. This book was published after the ten complete Hornblower novels, but before C. S. Forester began writing Hornblower During the Crisis.

The first half of The Hornblower Companion includes thirty maps that detail each of Hornblower’s adventures, with locations of key events highlighted, and with commentary by Forester on each facing page. There are plenty of spoilers here, so first-time readers of the Hornblower novels should not plan to follow along with these maps. Throughout this section, Forester celebrates how he has made Hornblower one of the luckiest characters in literature. He repeatedly refers to events resulting in Hornblower’s success as “convenient” and “fortunate”, and in defense of his contrived plots only says that if “ordinary rules” applied to Hornblower there would be no Hornblower stories (that is most certainly true). Forester never met a convenient coincidence he didn’t like.

The second half of the book contains Forester’s notes on writing. He describes how the idea for Hornblower originated, how each novel developed, and how his many health problems affected the process; he also details his writing methods. A pattern appears – nearly every Hornblower novel was planned to be the last one Forester wrote. The notes make some similarities between Hornblower and Forester himself rather obvious – the constant dissatisfaction with life is the main thing; Hornblower has also inherited a number of Forester’s mannerisms. These notes also highlight just what a good job Forester did fitting Hornblower’s chronology together (since he wrote them out of sequence) with relatively few inconsistencies.

Astonishingly, mind-bogglingly, Forester says, “In my opinion the story about Hornblower and St. Elizabeth of Hungary…is the best story I have ever written”. “St. Elizabeth of Hungary” from Hornblower in the West Indies – that excruciating, predictable, contrived, hackneyed, deux ex machina-ridden, facepalm-inducing story. What on earth does he like about it? Forester never quite says; in any event it is obvious from this and other passages that Forester is utterly unable to evaluate his writing objectively.

Hornblower fans who are geographically challenged and anyone curious about the writing process will find The Hornblower Companion of interest. Certainly it is illuminating to get Forester’s take on things.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies (1958), also known as Hornblower in the West Indies, is C. S. Forester’s eleventh and final Hornblower novel by chronology, ninth by publication. It is made up of five mostly unrelated shorter stories, and reads much like Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950). The title is more or less the plot summary, as Horatio Hornblower deals with various relatively minor crises during peace-time.

This novel features some of Forester’s all-time worst storytelling. Both “St. Elizabeth of Hungary” and “The Hurricane” are irritatingly, excruciatingly predictable. It isn’t just that the reader will see the “twists” coming (which they certainly will), but that the reader will be rightfully annoyed with Forester for having resorted to such cheap plot devices and not putting in a decent effort.

In fact, “St. Elizabeth of Hungary” is the worst Hornblower story ever written. Not only is it horrendously predictable, but never has Forester so egregiously thrown one of the ridiculously convenient coincidences that have helped Hornblower become so successful in the face of the reader. Hornblower here bemoans at length the sacrificing of his honor – never mind that he has acted dishonorably quite a few times before. Hornblower has repeatedly demonstrated (to the reader at least) that he is not a man of integrity, and the reader should not be sympathetic to his despair now that he has finally committed a dishonor that will become publicly known.

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies does have its moments, but it suffers not only from Forester’s lackluster storytelling but also from the fact that Forester still hasn’t figured out how to put a flag-rank Hornblower into situations that are both interesting and believable. From a high and lofty administrative position, Hornblower lacks both the interaction with other characters and the opportunities for split-second decision-making that make the best Hornblower stories so good. It isn’t that Forester ran out of ideas for Hornblower – Lieutenant Hornblower (1952) and Hornblower and the Atropos (1953) were published immediately before and Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962) immediately after this one, and they are the finest novels in the series.

And so with Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies the Hornblower series mercifully fizzles out. Those who have read the series by chronology will note that on the whole, the first half was measurably more interesting than the second, and that the series had been losing steam for quite a while. The series as a whole is recommended, though, on the strength of Forester’s novels of Hornblower’s career pre-Beat to Quarters (1937).


Thursday, June 25, 2009


Lord Hornblower (1946) is C. S. Forester’s tenth Hornblower novel by chronology, fifth by publication. Commodore Horatio Hornblower is sent to the coast of France to deal with a ship of British mutineers who have threatened to take refuge in France. Not content just to handle this problem, Hornblower also gets himself involved in a French occupation and guerilla warfare.

The earliest part of Lord Hornblower, where Hornblower is dealing with the mutinous Flame, is the novel’s best. It features an unpredictable and creative resolution that hearkens to many of Hornblower’s pre-captaincy adventures. When the book moves into France, however, it suffers. Land campaigns are still not Forester’s strong suit, and he skips over lengthy time periods where quite a lot happens in order to fit this story into one novel. One of Commodore Hornblower’s main problems was that Hornblower was well-removed from the action, and never in any real danger. Forester has corrected this here, perhaps to the extreme.

Hornblower, as usual, is wildly successful in his endeavors, although he benefits greatly from several very convenient plot devices and not a little bit of deus ex machina. And as severe and hard on himself as Hornblower is in most areas of his life, and as guilty as he feels when he perceives a failing in himself, it continues to be remarkable that he always drops his pants the first chance he gets, with no regard for anyone but himself. At least he never really has the decency to feel bad about it afterward.

It has become quite clear that the novels of Hornblower’s earlier career are superior – both the stories and the man himself are considerably more interesting and likable.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Commodore Hornblower (1945), also known as The Commodore, is C. S. Forester’s ninth Hornblower novel by chronology, fourth by publication. Horatio Hornblower, now rich and married to Lady Barbara but still pathetic and miserable, is sent with his faithful one-legged minion Bush and a flotilla to the Baltic Sea to engage in some anti-France international diplomacy and action.

There is some character development here that shows either Hornblower’s inconstancy or Forester’s inconsistency. Lady Barbara acts toward Hornblower in much the same way his first wife Maria did – but where Maria’s behavior annoyed him to no end, he enjoys the same treatment from Barbara. Even so, Hornblower escalates his philandering in this novel, and reaps some consequences that will leave the reader unsympathetic.

Commodore Hornblower is one of the longer books in the series, and it’s also one of the hardest to get through. Hornblower has a number of ships to work with here, and he has plenty of opportunities to use them, however none of his escapades are particularly interesting or remarkable, and neither he nor his squadron are ever in any real danger. The novel also suffers from the fact that Hornblower, as a flag officer, is a step removed from many of its most interesting conflicts.

Commodore Hornblower hardly features Forester’s best writing. The whole thing is more muddled than one expects from him, and it seems clear, particularly given the date of publication, that one of his main priorities with this book was to draw parallels to World War II. And land battles are certainly not Forester’s forte. They play a pivotal role here, but are mostly glossed over and rushed through, and so the reader may well be confused about the specifics.

Therefore, Commodore Hornblower is, for a variety of reasons, one of Forester’s weaker entries in the Hornblower series.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

FLYING COLOURS by C. S. Forester

Flying Colours (1938) is C. S. Forester’s eighth Hornblower novel by chronology, third by publication; it completes Forester’s original story arc. Having been forced to surrender to a French squadron at the end of Ship of the Line, Horatio Hornblower is imprisoned and sent with Lieutenant Bush and his coxswain to Paris to have an example made of him. Most of the novel deals with their attempts to escape France.

Most of Flying Colours takes place on land, making it a refreshing change from the innumerable sea battles that fill every other Hornblower novel. And Forester moves things a long at a fairly good pace. There are a few noticeable conveniences in the plot, but they are not sufficiently egregious as to ruin the story.

The problems Forester had in Ship of the Line with Hornblower being overly loathsome have been alleviated for the most part. Hornblower has escalated his philandering ways, however, but since it should be abundantly clear by now that he is a man of no principle beyond his duty to the Royal Navy, this should hardly come as a great shock to the reader. This fundamental lack of integrity most assuredly has quite a bit to do with his complete inability to be contented with his life, even with things wrapping up in a very tidy manner for him as they do here.

There is a great deal of drama here with Hornblower and his wife Maria, or there should be; Forester leaves it largely untapped. For those who read the Hornblower novels in the order Forester wrote them, Maria has never appeared “on camera,” as it were, to this point, and so this is not a big deal. But those who have read them in chronological order are considerably more invested in the character of Maria, and rightly hoped for more. Obviously Forester could not have gone back and changed things in his earlier works, but the end result is that the resolution here is hardly satisfactory. This is the price one pays when one writes out of chronology: the merit of the original works is diminished by later works, which reveal and even create flaws in them.

Flying Colours is a step up from Ship of the Line, and is a mostly satisfactory conclusion to the original Hornblower story arc, which is, on the whole, decent, and which would give way to subsequent superior novels.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

SHIP OF THE LINE by C. S. Forester

Ship of the Line (1938), also known as A Ship of the Line, is C. S. Forester’s seventh Hornblower novel by chronology, second by publication. Hornblower, who seemingly encounters ridiculous drama every time he gets a new command, takes charge of Sutherland, a ship of the line, then sails off to conduct various raids on the French.

Horatio Hornblower has never been as unsympathetic or unlikable as he is in Ship of the Line. Throughout the series, Forester has made Hornblower a particularly flawed character – that’s part of Hornblower’s charm. But here, Forester has gone too far – he’s made Hornblower a loathsome, pathetic individual. Hornblower is obtuse; he’s prone to paranoid inner monologues; he wallows in self-pity; he has no real moral values beyond his duty; he moons about, pining for Lady Barbara; he’s racist, law-breaking,
self-serving and dishonorable. Forester got a better handle on the character in later novels, but for the modern chronological reader it certainly appears that Hornblower is evolving into a despicable man of low character in his old age.

Most of Ship of the Line is action, but none of Hornblower’s adventures in this novel are particularly remarkable. Capture a ship, sink a ship, attack a fort, weather a storm – been there, done that. There’s no real plot here; it’s just attack, attack, attack. And is Hornblower the only man in the Royal Navy who speaks Spanish? Really? This isn’t the first time Forester’s given the reader that impression, either. And again, a careful reader who has gone through the series chronologically will notice more events that Forester later retconned.

Ship of the Line is a tremendous disappointment, especially given the superior Hornblower novels Forester wrote after it. It ends with a cliffhanger, so you really can’t skip it, but it’s easily the worst book in the series to this point in the chronology.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

BEAT TO QUARTERS by C. S. Forester

Beat to Quarters (1937), also known as The Happy Return, is C. S. Forester’s original Horatio Hornblower novel. It fits sixth in the chronology. In 1808, Hornblower, captain of the frigate Lydia, sails to Nicaragua to aid a mad warlord in his revolution against the French. Complications ensue, as usual, including the married Hornblower falling in love with another woman (which is rather unexpected).

Beat to Quarters has a fair mix of action and drama, although things drag along at times. The climax of the book is a fifty-page sea battle, during which Forester immerses the reader in naval warfare and at the same time overloads him with nautical details.
Beat to Quarters was written over ten years before any of the chronologically-previous novels, and there is a noticeable difference in style and tone. For one, the narrative here does not flow as well as it does in Forester’s later writing – he gets bogged down in details and he has a tendency to repeat himself. Hornblower is still fundamentally Hornblower – he is self-loathing, insecure, posturing and hypocritical, although his manner is not quite the same and he has manifested a bizarre habit of saying, “Ha – h’m,” all the time.

It will become clear to anyone who has read the Hornblower books that Forester did quite a bit of retconning when he went back to write the novels of Hornblower’s early career. Notable examples include Hornblower’s age and his relationship with Lieutenant Bush, and there are quite a few other small things.

On the whole, Beat to Quarters is a decent novel not with out its problems, although its flaws are easier to forgive knowing that Forester was still finding his way with Hornblower. New Hornblower readers would do better to start with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.


Monday, May 18, 2009


Hornblower and the Atropos (1953) is C. S. Forester’s fifth Hornblower novel chronologically, eighth by publication. Captain Horatio Hornblower, age 29, takes command of the Atropos, the smallest ship in the navy suitable for a post-captain, but before he can sail for sunken treasure, he has to manage his pregnant wife, coordinate Admiral Nelson’s funeral procession, and meet the king.

Hornblower continues to be his own worst enemy – he does not know himself. He continues to be heroic and ingenious, but always ascribes to himself the basest of motives, and he is typically wrong in his self-analysis. It is clear to the reader by now that he genuinely loves his family, but when his ship is found to be unready to sail, he considers all the time he has spent with them “wasted.”

Much of this novel follows the pattern that Stan Lee used to make his Spider-Man comics so successful – there’s always something. Nothing ever goes smoothly, and problems and complications are added with regularity. At the same time, Hornblower is still larger than life. He could fall down the stairs and capture a French frigate.

Hornblower and the Atropos has more humor and more action than the chronologically preceding books; it is also more episodic. And, for a change, this one ends with some unresolved drama. The character spotlight is shined on Hornblower only – Lieutenant Bush is missed, although he can’t reasonably be expected to show up everywhere.

On the whole, Hornblower and the Atropos is an action-packed page-turner, and a solid entry in the Hornblower series.



Giants of Land, Sea & Air: Past & Present (1986) is a children’s book from the Sierra Club by artist David Peters. It is currently out of print, although copies are not difficult to find. Each page features, as the title suggests, some of earth’s largest land, sea and air creatures, extinct and living, with humans shown for scale. Each creature gets a few paragraphs of description plus its Latin name and taxonomic information.

Peters’ art is spectacular. His creatures look extremely real, and his paintings often feel almost like photographs. The art for this book could not be better or more fitting. Peters’ humans are always the same size, and it’s nothing short of magnificent when the brachiosaurus or the blue whale crowds the pages and dwarfs them (the blue whale is stretched over seven pages!).

Giants of Land, Sea & Air: Past & Present is a large book. It’s only 73 pages long, but it’s over 13 inches tall and almost ten inches across. This is all to the good, as all the page space is helpful in highlighting just how big some of these creatures were (or are).

When I was a child, I thought Giants of Land, Sea & Air: Past & Present was just about the neatest book ever. I still feel that way. It’s a brilliant idea and an amazing book.


Thursday, May 14, 2009


Hornblower During the Crisis (1967), also known as Hornblower and the Crisis, is the last Hornblower novel C. S. Forester worked on – he died before he finished it. It fits fourth in the chronology. The book also includes two short stories, “Hornblower’s Temptation” (also known as “Hornblower and the Widow McCool,” and “The Last Encounter.”

In Hornblower During the Crisis, Horatio Hornblower, promoted to captain before the age of thirty, is relieved of command of Hotspur and sent back to England. But almost immediately, Hotspur’s new captain sinks the ship. Hornblower is called upon to testify at his court martial, after which all the officers travel back to England on a water ship. They encounter a French brigantine, and Hornblower recovers important French documents. He works with the Secretary of the Navy to craft a plan to deliver forged orders to Villeneuve, the French admiral.

In “Hornblower’s Temptation,” Lieutenant Hornblower, serving on the Renown under Captain Sawyer, is responsible for arranging the execution of a deserter, an Irish revolutionary. In “The Last Encounter,” Hornblower, now 72, wealthy, retired and still as self-loathing as ever, is visited by a man claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte, who insists he needs Hornblower’s help to get to Paris immediately. Both stories are entertaining enough, although the chest gimmickry in “Hornblower’s Temptation” is a bit much. “The Last Encounter” is noteworthy because it is Forester’s final Hornblower chapter.

There are 130-150 pages of Hornblower During the Crisis, depending on how the publisher formats it, which comprises half the novel or less. Where there narrative concludes, there is a one-page summary compiled from Forester’s notes. Nothing unexpected happens – Hornblower has a crisis of conscience, his sense of duty prevails, as always, and his mission is a wonderful success, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar.

There is certainly a lot of potential in Forester’s storyline, but all the reader gets is setup. Hornblower in the shady business of espionage is the perfect opportunity for him to wallow in a moral crisis, and Forester was clearly building toward the drama of the constant threat of hideous death for spies, but unfortunately, we never get that far.

Forester once again dangles Hornblower’s promotion in front of him, threatening to take it away before it’s been confirmed. But Forester has gone to that well already. It doesn’t generate any suspense, and it just feels tawdry on Forester’s part.

Hornblower During the Crisis is for Hornblower completists – it adds nothing significant to Hornblower’s overall story arc. It has its moments, but it can easily be skipped.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hornblower Timeline

According to Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Horatio Hornblower was born in 1776.

Period Covered - Book - Date of Publication

1793-1798 - Mr. Midshipman Hornblower - 1950

1799 - “Hornblower’s Temptation”*

1800-1803 - Lieutenant Hornblower - 1952

1803-1805 - Hornblower and the Hotspur - 1962

1805 - Hornblower During the Crisis - 1967

1805-1808 - Hornblower and the Atropos - 1953

1808 - Beat to Quarters (The Happy Return) - 1937

1810 - Ship of the Line - 1938

1810-1811 - Flying Colours - 1938

1812 - Commodore Hornblower - 1945

1813-1814 - Lord Hornblower - 1946

1821-1823 - Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies - 1958

1848 - “The Last Encounter”*

*“Hornblower's Temptation” and “The Last Encounter” are included in Hornblower During the Crisis.

C. S. Forester published three other Hornblower stories:

-“Hornblower and His Majesty” – set in 1812, published in 1940

-“The Hand of Destiny” – set in 1796, published in 1940

-“Hornblower’s Charitable Offering” – set in 1810, published in 1941

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962) is C. S. Forester’s third Hornblower novel chronologically, tenth by publication. Horatio Hornblower has, more out of pity than anything else, gone ahead and married the rather pathetically devoted Maria, his landlady’s daughter. But England is mobilizing again for war with France, and Hornblower is immediately put in command of the sloop Hotspur and sent out in advance of an English blockade of Brest, whereupon Hornblower leads various raids against the French.

The running subplot here involves Hornblower’s feelings toward his wife and their coming child. When he marries her, he does not love her. While he is at sea, he begins to develop affectionate feelings toward her and the child, although he believes these to be insincere. Amusingly, given Hornblower’s inwardly-professed feelings toward Maria coupled with the months on end he spends at sea, they make a remarkably fecund couple.

This is Hornblower’s first command, and it is interesting to see him bring his highly self-critical nature to this position. He captains with his usual great diligence and initiative, but he is rarely satisfied with his performance, regardless of the results, and he berates himself over the smallest failings. At times, he takes this frustration out on his men; in all he makes a somewhat mercurial captain. But all this is part of what makes Hornblower such an interesting character – this is a man who, despite numerous successes and fairly rapid promotion, thinks very poorly of himself, and is self-deprecating almost to a career-damaging degree.

As usual, Forester does a solid job of mixing action and drama. Other than a few sections where Hornblower and his crew get bogged down in the minutiae of eighteenth century navigation (which is a challenge and a triumph for Hornblower but isn’t very interesting for modern land-based audiences), the pace is quite good.

Aside from Hornblower, the only other character to receive any significant amount of Forester’s attention is Lieutenant Bush, but Bush does little other than faithfully follow his orders and do his duty, and he comes off as disappointingly flat here, particularly compared to his treatment in the previous Lieutenant Hornblower. Hornblower’s wife, Maria, is a doting caricature in her infrequent appearances.

In all, Hornblower and the Hotspur is a very solid, very entertaining entry in the Hornblower saga, and one that advances his story nicely.


Friday, May 8, 2009


Lieutenant Hornblower (1952) is C. S. Forester’s second Hornblower novel chronologically, seventh by publication. Horatio Hornblower, now a lieutenant, is serving on HMS Renown under the mad Captain Sawyer, who sees mutiny all around him. At the same time, Renown is sent to the West Indies on a mission to take a Spanish base. Following the resolution of these dramas, Hornblower’s career is threatened by the Peace of Amiens.

This novel introduces William Bush, Hornblower’s fellow officer, who becomes Hornblower’s good friend and who appears in most of the chronologically succeeding novels. Bush is a phlegmatic character, and a thoroughly competent, if unimaginative, officer. Lieutenant Hornblower is told from his perspective rather than Hornblower’s. This spares the reader all of Hornblower’s inner drama, self-criticism and inadequacies, and Hornblower comes off (through Bush’s eyes) as slightly eccentric but purely heroic.

Forester does a fantastic job of character development here (much better than in the previous Mr. Midshipman Hornblower). Lieutenants Bush, Buckland and Hornblower are all well done and well fleshed out – each man has distinctly unique strengths, weaknesses, desires, concerns, and personality. Forester gives the reader some particular insight into Hornblower’s character at the end of the novel, when, because of the cessation of hostilities, Hornblower must earn his living as a gambler. The man always does the charitable thing, the caring thing, and yet he does it not because he necessarily cares genuinely, but because he is bent on mastering himself, and, as far as possible, overcoming the weakness of his humanity.

Lieutenant Hornblower has an excellent mix of action, drama and suspense. It seems like the use of archaic naval jargon is less here than it was in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, but perhaps I’ve gotten used to it, or, perhaps, the superior storytelling has marginalized its distractive impact. Lieutenant Hornblower also has several of those great little moments, those quirky, memorable instances that define both a character and a book.

In all, Lieutenant Hornblower is an entertaining, well-written book, and as good a work in this genre as you’re likely to find.