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.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009


The Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte) is a 1979 young adult fantasy novel by Michael Ende, translated from the original German by Ralph Manheim and illustrated by Roswitha Quadflieg. In our world, Bastian, a fat, unpleasant, unloved bookworm of a child, steals a book called The Neverending Story from a shop. This book chronicles the adventures of the child hero Atreyu, who embodies all the virtues that Bastian does not, as he attempts to save the world of Fantastica from total destruction. But their two worlds, as Bastian comes to discover, are connected.

By now, most people coming to The Neverending Story for the first time will already be familiar with the 1984 Wolfgang Petersen film. The movie covers the first half of the book, and The Neverending Story II is only loosely based on the second half.

Ende has created dozens of imaginative lands and creatures – perhaps too many, as the reader is taken through them all so quickly that few are able to make a lasting impact. This is probably The Neverending Story’s biggest flaw. There is material here for numerous books, but all packed together, it reads like a whirlwind, and often feels like the literary equivalent of looking out the window of a high-speed train, moving from one fantastic situation to another without a pause to soak in the scenery (or have a little character development).

Bastian is the only character who receives significant development (Atreyu has the monomyth pattern stamped all over him; he is a two-dimensional, archetypal hero to the core), and Ende does some surprising things with him. Bastian evolves from an unlikable child with low self-confidence to an arrogant bully to a villainous tyrant, and it’s a gutsy move on Ende’s part to take Bastian as far down that path as he does.

Ende touches lightly on a number of mature themes, including life and death, morality, love, belief, and desire. Again, though, one wishes he had spent a little more time developing them, which would have given the book a deeper and more lasting impact.

The book itself is artistically done and well-presented. The text is presented in two colors: one for scenes on Earth and one for scenes on Fantastica. The book is divided into twenty-six chapters, each with its own illustrated frontispiece featuring the first letter of that chapter’s text (they go from A to Z, in order) and that chapter’s events.

On the whole, The Neverending Story is an entertaining and highly imaginative fantasy that will appeal to fans of the genre of all ages, even if its brisk pace holds it back somewhat.


Friday, May 1, 2009


Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is a 1950 novel by C. S. Forester. It is, chronologically, the first book in the eleven-book Hornblower series, although Forester wrote it sixth. It reads and flows considerably more like a sequence of short stories than a novel. In 1794, the young Horatio Hornblower enters the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Britain is involved in military action against France and Spain (it is the dawn of the Napoleonic Wars), and Hornblower has adventures in and out of combat.

The gawky, seasick Hornblower is an interesting character. He is intelligent, brave, and clever, but he is also extremely introspective, self-critical, and insecure, which makes him an unnecessarily harsh judge of himself, as he typically focuses on what he perceives as his cowardice and dishonesty. To a large degree, the way Forester handles and develops this character is what keeps things interesting.

Forester’s writing is not for everyone. He is short on the physical details of characters and rather long on the use of two hundred year old naval jargon. This latter gives his writing a profound ring of authenticity, although it may prove somewhat inscrutable at times to most twenty-first century landsmen. Mostly, though, the stories and dialogue flow coherently.

With a collection of entertaining if largely unremarkable stories, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is a solid introduction to the Hornblower series for those desiring to read them chronologically.