Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Two by Pope

Ramage & The Drumbeat
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

No. 2 of the Lord Ramage Novels, originally published in 1967, continues the 18-book series of naval exploits of Nicholas Ramage, the anointed successor to Horatio Hornblower. In this adventure, our ideal young hero is given pretty clear orders: (1) Take command of the cutter Kathleen; (2) Convey an Italian count and marchesa (the latter being, by chance, Ramage's true love) to the British port of Gibraltar; (3) avoid risking the safety of these passengers if at all possible.

Nevertheless, Ramage puts a loose construction on these orders when he sees a Spanish frigate that has been dismasted by a sudden squall. With great daring, he captures the larger ship and takes it in tow. At first, fortune seems to favor the bold. But then things start to unravel. First, Ramage gets separated from his beloved Gianna. Then he and his crew are captured by a Spanish fleet. Held prisoner in Cartagena, Ramage joins several of his men in a masquerading as American sailors who are protected from conscription - a ruse that could get them hanged for espionage if their true British nationality is discovered. And since there's no sense risking the noose for spying without actually spying, they gather some important intelligence that must be passed on to the British fleet. And that means escaping.

By this point, Ramage & The Drumbeat has already delivered enough saltwater adventure to fill a satisfying novel. But when Ramage rejoins the fleet, the main event is still warming up. For the date is approaching 14 February 1797, and the place is the Atlantic off Cape St. Vincent, and a crucial naval battle in the war between Britain and Spain is about to take place. Admiral Jervis (later Lord St. Vincent) and Commodore Nelson command the stage. You're about to have front-row seats at an event that actually happened, a battle that helped make the era that we fans of Hornblower and Jack Aubrey love to relive. And, unsung by history but plain for your mind's eye to see, young Ramage and his cutter's crew have a pivotal role to play.

Dudley Pope puts us there with a high level of authenticity owing to his own experience as a sailor, war journalist, and naval historian. He rivets us with his depiction of a studly young officer and his keen eye for vivid description. And he lifts a historic battle off the flat page and with it crafts an exciting, hold-your-breath suspenseful account. Though some of the customs and quirks of naval service in the late 18th and early 19th century are hard to convert into the currency of modern experience, I think Mr. Pope offers an attractive rate of exchange. Whenever my fantasy life grows tired of tales of magic, this era is where it goes to refresh itself. I am grateful to Mr. Pope for opening a window on it.

Ramage & The Freebooters
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the third of 18 "Lord Ramage Novels," naval historian and sometime sailor Dudley Pope draws us back to the year 1797, where a young Royal Navy lieutenant named Nicholas Ramage has been given a brig to command. His immediate challenge is to get the ship out of the Spithead roads, given that the entire British fleet anchored there has mutinied. Ramage manages it through sheer nerve and force of character, then proceeds to make a fine fighting crew out of a shipload of mutineers.

But this is only the beginning. Next Ramage has to cure his ship's surgeon of an all-but-terminal case of dipsomania; then he captures a French slave ship in a passage that vividly brings to life the 19th century controversy over slavery. And all that's before they get to the West Indies, where Ramage will face the biggest challenge of his career so far.

Grenada: the southernmost of the Windward Islands that sweep north from Venezuela between the Atlantic and the balmy Caribbean. Its colonial capital, St. George, is a major port in the molasses trade. Merchant schooners carry this liquid treasure to Martinique for transshipment and eventual passage to England. But lately, something has been happening to many of these schooners. They leave St. George all right; but they never arrive at Martinique.

Two captains senior to Ramage, commanding bigger shps, have tried and failed to solve this mystery. Now it's Ramage's turn - not so much because the local Admiral thinks he will succeed, as because he would make a handy scapegoat. But Ramage isn't as dumb as he looks (at least to the Admiral and his favorites). He'll crack the uncrackable case, even if it means using a merchantman as bait, out-snobbing an uppity colonial governor, making friends with a soldier who hates sailors, falling in love with a blackmail victim, getting blood on his hands, doing battle with the forces of evil magic, and allowing himself to be captured by privateers and taken to their lair.

The final battle, fought in the close quarters of a hidden lagoon and involving an unconventional use of firepower, calls for enough daring, danger, and delicate sailing maneuvers to make the whole book worthwhile. When it ends, you may have forgotten how long it took to get there, because at every stage it has been a swift and eventful journey. And if you've got boats on the brain, as I do, the thought of 15 further novels in this series will make you very happy indeed.

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