Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ramage 8-11

Ramage's Mutiny
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the eighth Lord Ramage novel, dashing young Captain Nicholas Ramage remains in command of the frigate Calypso, which he had captured from the French off Martinique in Book 7. He is still on the Caribbean station, too, under the command of the admiral whose share in the Martinique prizes ought to incline him favorably toward Ramage. His spectacular success in a mission of which not much was expected stands, however, in embarrassing contrast to the failure of the admiral's favorite, a captain who was supposed to cut a shipful of mutineers out of the Venezuelan port to which they had surrendered themselves. The first captain had sailed up and down in front of the harbor, decided there was nothing he could do about it, and sailed home. Now it's up to Ramage to do or die—most likely the latter—or, failing to do either, to serve as a convenient scapegoat for the admiral and his favorite captain.

This tale of naval derring-do in the age of sail is based on the story of the HMS Hermione, a ship whose crew mutinied in 1797, handed themselves over to the Spanish ship and all, and were later recaptured by the British. Here Ramage is up against not only the dangerous Spanish shore batteries of the fictitious port of Santa Cruz, and the ships that cruise the Spanish main, but the very real threat of mutiny spreading like a virus from one ship to another, even perhaps to a whole fleet, unless it is put down soonest and discipline restored.

As usual, the very capable Ramage is backed up by a capital crew, much of which he has somehow managed to keep together through three or four commissions. He still has among his lieutenants the loyal Aitken and the able Wagstaffe, as well as a fiery, aristocratic youth named Paolo Orsini as his midshipman; ship's master Southwick with his full range of expressive sniffs, red-faced marine lieutenant Rennick with his passion for cutting-out actions, American-born coxswain Jackson with his shrewd reserve, and the dear, familiar peanut gallery of seamen Stafford and Rossi, and others, serving at times as chorus to the developing suspense and intrigue of the mission.

Plus, you get to see all these familiar faces in a strange and perhaps hilarious disguise. In a ruse of diabolical cleverness calculated to get the Calypso past Santa Cruz's impassible batteries, they become a shipful of mutineers themselves. The humor of the situation is somewhat tempered by the risk these men are taking, the risk of being shot as spies, and a very close-run risk at that as, inevitably, the plan comes off with hitches galore, and a tremendous explosion at the end.

Author Dudley Pope, himself a sailor who loved cruising the Caribbean, succeeds beautifully in this installment of a series that takes a deliciously slow-paced survey of Ramage's naval career. In reality, he would already have taken more than his share of prizes as a frigate captain, but we don't mind seeing the cruise go on. Perhaps less subtle than a Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin novel, a Lord Ramage story is always worth reading for the sheer thrill and delight of being, as it were, an eyewitness to such daring exploits in an era when warfare was just deadly enough to make each battle really matter.

Ramage and the Rebels
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

With this ninth book in the series, the Lord Ramage Novels reach their midway point. Captain Nicholas Ramage, R.N., is still cruising the Caribbean in his formerly French frigate Calypso, but unfortunately he is no longer under the command of an admiral who owes him a fortune in valuable prizes. Instead, he has to bear with the interference of Admiral Sir William Foxe-Foote, more a politician than a seaman. Foxe-Foote sets young Ramage on the wake of a band of piratical privateers, whose bloody work the Calypsos soon see for themselves on board a ship whose passengers were senselessly slaughtered.

The scent of piracy eventually leads Ramage & Co. to the Dutch-held island of Curaçao—which, owing to the alliance between France and the Netherlands at that time, is enemy soil. But Ramage comes at a particularly opportune moment. The spirit of revolution, stirred up in part by French patriots and in part by self-serving privateers, has spread to the back country of Curaçao. The Dutch governor feels events slipping out of his grip. In desperation, he calls on Ramage and the Calpysos for aid—in effect, surrendering his island to the British without a shot being fired—so that the flames of rebellion can be stopped before they consume the capital city and the ships anchored in its uniquely sheltered harbor.

Getting at the rebels means leading a significant expedition inland, where (apart from the marines) Ramage's men are not used to fighting. Their land battles with the rebels and privateers are exciting enough; but when Ramage is betrayed by all but a few of the Dutch officials after keeping his side of the bargain, and threatened by a powerful Dutch ship of war to boot, the actions he takes are... well, let's say "explosive" and leave it at that. He loses some valued men and takes a shrewd blow to the head himself, but he also helps two heartbroken lovers come together, seals the fate of the pirate who had slaughtered those innocent passengers, and acquires an entire island for His Britannic Majesty. Not bad for a frigate on the prowl for privateers!

The Ramage Touch
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Ten of the Lord Ramage Novels finds Captain Nicholas Ramage and the men of His Majesty's Frigate Calypso on a four-month cruise in the Mediterranean, at a time when that body of water has virtually been swept clean of British ships. Even though Ramage and the Calypsos prefer the climate of their previous station in the Caribbean, they couldn't ask for a more ideal set of instructions: to cruise, without a convoy and independent of any superior officers' direct interference, "to create as much havoc as he could along the French and Italian coasts, disrupting shipping, transport, communications..."

If you ask Ramage to create havoc among the enemy, you've come to the right shop. In this particular mission, aided by all his old faithful followers as well as at least one promising newcomer (a "wide awake," flute playing, young lieutenant named Martin), Ramage captures two bomb-ketches—which is to say, two small ships designed not so much for their sailing virtues as to provide floating platforms for the firing of explosive mortar shells. At first, after seeing to it that his junior officers have a grasp of the principles of firing a mortar, Ramage seems content to sink the bomb-ketches. But they prove useful in battering a troop convoy being manned in a Tuscan port, and in capturing the plans for a mysterious massing of troops in the eastern Mediterranean.

Once again, Ramage proves that he has a unique touch with men, sails, guns, and the many daring disguises of war. At times wittily comical, and often overflowing with action and excitement, this book is a valuable installment in a consistently fun-to-read series. I might quibble at the marine lieutenant's name suddenly (and for this book only) changing from Rennick to Renwick; but neither C. S. Forester nor Patrick O'Brian was immune to continuity gaffes over the course of a long series of novels, so why get worked up about it? After all, it's just another reminder of the vast number of miles, battles, and thrilling exploits covered in the 18 Ramage novels. And if you hadn't already guessed, I'll let you in on a secret: I mean to read them all!

Ramage's Signal
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the eleventh of the Lord Ramage Novels, Capt. Nicholas Ramage continues his four-month Mediterranean cruise (begun in Book 10) with splendidly open-ended instructions to raise Old Harry with enemy shipping. He is well-equipped to do it. Besides being a clever tactician, blessed with a gift for seamanship and an aura of command, Ramage happens to command the frigate Calypso, so recently captured from the French that she retains the unmistakable rigging, paintwork, and armament of the French navy. And she has one of the top fighting crews in His Britannic Majesty's navy, from elderly ship's master Southwick (a prime navigator) to teenaged midshipman Paolo Orsini, a nephew of the Italian marchesa who is all but engaged to Ramage. His first lieutenant has passed up opportunities for promotion in order to keep sailing with him; his junior lieutenant, a flute-playing youth nicknamed "Blower Martin," was all but born sailing and shows every promise of becoming a great naval commander himself, if he doesn't get killed first.

And now it's about to get a lot easier. For Ramage has decided to capture a semaphore station on the coast of France, replacing the signalmen with members of his own crew, in order to gather information about enemy shipping and, ultimately, to disrupt communications from Toulon to Barcelona. In spite of a few surprises from the weather and from enemy forces, they manage this nicely. Then their work is simply a matter of luring a whole convoy of merchantmen into a trap across a wide expanse of sea, maintaining all the while the charade of being their French escort; defending them against a crew of ruthless Algerine pirates; capturing and burning them without letting any ships get away and ruin their disguise; and finally, getting their prizes to Gibraltar without letting the ever-present Franch and their allies recapture them.

Remarkably, the exciting final chapter plays out in Ramage's absence, while other business detains him elsewhere. All in all it's a delightful romp, full of familiar, friendly faces, amazing ruses, roaring guns, creeping suspense, and all manner of good-humored fun. As I write this, I have only one additional Lord Ramage novel in my possession (Book 12, Ramage and the Renegades), but even if I can't afford to buy the six that follow it, I'm not worried. I've got a shiny new library card, and I've already put a reserve on Book 13!

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