Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alexander Kent

The Bolitho Novels
by Alexander Kent

My hunger for naval fiction has become more ravenous than ever, lately. I devoured C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels. I inhaled Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyiad, books that I count among my most cherished possessions and that I have begun re-reading in audio-book form. I am two-thirds of the way through Pope's Lord Ramage novels. It won't take me long to finish them all. So I sensed that, in the tradition of Britain's Royal Navy, "not a moment must be lost." I decided that it was time to find the next major series of naval novels to sail through. Guided in part by the advice of a knowledgeable second-hand bookseller, and in part by the recommendations listed in the foreparts of the Ramage books, I decided to give the Bolitho novels by Alexander Kent a try. It already runs to more than two dozen books, and it seems the author is still writing them, so I reckoned they would provide ample hours of reading pleasure.

After I read the first book, I realized that I need to know more about this remarkable author. My research on Kent turned up something really amazing. Judging by his Bolitho novels, Alexander Kent is an amazingly prolific author. But he doesn't actually exist. Kent is, in fact, a pen name of author Douglas Reeman, who has published numerous other books under his own name. In addition to the Bolitho series, Reeman has written an equal number of novels based on World War II naval wafare, a five-book series on several generations of Royal Marines (the Blackwood Saga), and at least seven other novels of action, adventure, and war on the water. Wiki has a list of them. The author's own website gives synopses, first-edition covers, and information on how to get hold of the current editions.

Between the two sites, you can find lists of the books in both publication and canon order. So I won't waste space on that here. Here I only want to point out that the Bolitho series follows the career first of Richard Bolitho, then of his nephew Adam, as officers in the Royal Navy beginning before the American Revolution, and thus commanding a broader sweep of history than the Hornblower, Aubrey, or Ramage novels (which all begin round about 1800). Indeed, I seem to remember that Horatio Hornblower's birthdate was July 4, 1776, which makes Richard Bolitho quite a bit senior to him and promises a series with plenty of room for sea actions and the changing fortunes of war.

Though Alexander Kent is really Douglas Reeman, it turns out there was a person by that name, a shipmate of the author's who was killed during World War II, and whose name Reeman honors with the Bolitho series. As a naval veteran, Douglas Reeman brings detailed experience, as well as considerable historical research, to his art. As far as I have read so far, however, it seems Reeman cares just as much about the heart, the conscience, and the feelings of his hero, portraying him and the people around him with a richness of personality in all its shades and colors. Other fans of the series, since I told the world on Facebook that I was starting to read it, have told me how deeply they enjoyed this series, reading it over and over from start to finish, and swearing that it is better than all the other series I have named; one even rhapsodized about unforgettable characters whom I have yet to meet. I hope their endorsement tempts you as much as it tempts me!

The Complete Midshipman Bolitho
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In canon order (that is, the chronology of events within the books), this is the first book in the Alexander Kent/Richard Bolitho series, actually authored by the amazing Douglas Reeman. But it wasn't the first to be written; that honor goes to To Glory We Steer (first published, 1968). Nor is it really one novel. Rather, it is an omnibus volume of two novellas and a novelette, if I may be allowed to draw such a fine distinction. Published in 1975, 1978, and 2005 respectively, their titles were Richard Bolitho—Midshipman, Midshipman Bolitho and the 'Avenger,' and Band of Brothers.

Even these three books do not cover all of Dick Bolitho's career as a midshipman in the British Royal Navy, which began some four years farther back at age 12. I suppose, however, that we must satisfy ourselves with what we've got. Dick's career can't have started to get interesting much before his assignment, in October 1772, to the 74-gun ship-of-the-line Gorgon, commanded by Captain Beves Conway. Just sixteen years old and already on his second ship, Bolitho resolves not to repeat this mistakes of his previous assignment. Instead, he sets out to make new ones, as well as to distinguish himself as a promising future leader. Already well versed in the rudiments of seamanship and the hard routine of duty on a ship of war, Bolitho faces new challenges, makes new friends, and shows every likelihood of living up to the standards of his naval officer brother, father, grandfather, and so on.

None of these things would make this a book that screamed to be picked up and read, without the danger, suspense, excitement, and action that Dick, his friend Martyn Dancer, and their shipmates face in these three short tales. For in these pages they face a band of ruthless, murdering pirates off the African slave coast, and arms smugglers off the Channel Islands. Bolitho serves under the command of his own brother on a revenue cutter, solves a murder, catches a traitor, endures a couple of hostile senior officers, protects a hero-worshiping junior midshipman, passes the examination for lieutenant, and watches his best friend die in his arms. That's quite a lot for two novellas and a novelette, no?

And there's just something about the age of sail that makes suspense an equal partner with action in adventure yarns like this. At a certain point leading up to every battle, and even in the heat of battle itself, there are long agonizing moments when all depends on where the wind blows you, at whatever speed it chooses to blow; or on the actions of the men with you, even when the fray becomes so thick that no semblance of order, or ability to give orders, remains. In moments like these, months of hard training and back-breaking discipline can make a lot of difference—while an officer who holds the confidence and loyalty of the men can make even more.

Such moments come, abundantly, in this book—or rather, these books. And though there are a few stretches, particularly in Band of Brothers, where Reeman's literary style eludes my grasp—where, frankly, I had trouble visualizing what was happening—I felt the promise of Dick Bolitho's naval career so keenly that I immediately bought the next book in the series: Stand into Danger.

Stand into Danger
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In 1980, this book was published as the 13th of what are now 30 (and counting) books in the Bolitho series of naval adventures. And now, after shifting three short novels about Dick Bolitho's career as a midshipman into one volume, this emerges as the second book in the series—as events flow. Eighteen-year-old Richard Bolitho, R.N., has just passed for lieutenant in Britain's peacetime fleet—has just lost his closest friend—has just been transferred out of the 74-gun Gorgon, not to the shore as one might expect, but to another ship. Now he belongs to the frigate Destiny, 28, commanded by the magnetic and often frighteningly driven Captain Henry Vere Dumaresq.

In particular, Dumaresq is driven to discover the fate of a cargo of Spanish gold that got taken by a British ship commanded by his father—and that subsequently disappeared. Through the betrayal of a trusted lieutenant, the wiles of a respectable pirate, and the passing of years, the treasure has become all but hopelessly lost. It is Dumaresq's passion, as well as his mission, to follow up on the few remaining clues and, if possible, take back the king's treasure—or, at least, to keep it from falling into the hands of the American colonists who draw ever closer to open rebellion.

In spite of his lowly position as Destiny's junior lieutenant, Bolitho has a pivotal role to play in wresting this treasure out of the hands of pirates who still, all these years later, are ready to kill to protect their secret—from an intimate knifing in a crowded port to a battle of roaring broadsides and land batteries belching heated shot. Besides taking a bad head wound in this adventure, Bolitho also takes a devastating wound to the heart—in the form of a beautiful woman married to a decidedly unbeautiful man.

All is not romance, mystery, and quest for lost treasure, however. Naval life in the late 18th century is brought vividly before the senses, with its hard work and tedious routine as well as its moments of explosive danger. We see the conflict of personalities, the building of friendships, the knitting together of a body of men, and one young officer showing an amazing gift for drawing men's loyalty to himself. Here Bolitho discovers his future coxswain Stockdale, leading an existence so miserable that being recruited as a seaman is the best thing to have happened to him so far. He finds a young midshipman named Jury who, after a short time together, seems determined to follow him anywhere. He finds friends and enemies galore while leading a boarding party cut off from reinforcements on his own ship, taking another ship just in time to escape the sinking of the one he was on, and leading a shore party in a no-quarters-asked-or-given battle with vastly superior pirate forces. He experiences love and loss, pain and pleasure, and the heat of battle both on land and at sea.

The adventure is thrilling. Its setting is vivid. Most importantly, its hero is very admirable. What more can I say? As I write this, I am too broke to continue buying books in the Bolitho series. But that isn't stopping me from reading them. I already have the next book in canon order, In Gallant Company, on request at the public library. And I can scarcely wait until it becomes available!

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