Wednesday, July 13, 2011


In Gallant Company
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third installment of the adventures of Richard Bolitho, a British naval officer of the generation before Hornblower and Aubrey, we find our protagonist stuck in the doldrums, becalmed. Not literally. Not actually in the tropics whistling for a breeze—he should be so happy! Rather, he is stuck in the position of Fourth Lieutenant (with an eff) on a huge, ponderous, crowded ship of the line, moored in the harbor of New York City during the early years of the American Revolution. Yes, my American friends, this book takes the point of view of the "bad guys" in the conflict that gave birth to our nation. And this is what I read over the Independence Day weekend! Is that unpatriotic of me? Perhaps not, given the superscription by no less an American poet than Walt Whitman: "Our foe was no skulk in his ship I tell you,... His was the surly English pluck, and there is no tougher or truer, and never was, and never will be."

Perhaps it is a compliment to the British Navy that a novel of its war against us can draw the excitement and sympathy of proud American readers. And perhaps it is just as great a compliment to our country that a British novelist, in glamorizing the greatest navy of that time, should depict our yet-unformed republic as a worthy foe. Though in fairness to all sides, I must admit the real bad guys were the French... as is only and always right!

With the French (and Spanish, and Dutch) more or less covertly aiding and arming the rebellious colonists, the forces of King George are stretched to the limit. In 1777-78, while corrupt government officials threw lavish parties in the ballrooms of New York, red-coated soldiers were dying by the score in a series of increasingly shocking military disasters. And as for the fleet, it would have to be everywhere at the same time to break the colonial supply chain... and to keep American and foreign privateers from doing the same to them!

Followed by his faithful shadow Stockdale, natural-born leader and tactical genius Richard Bolitho climbs the ladder of promotion on board the Trojan, in spite of the drunkenness, cowardice, arrogance, disloyalty, and downright villainy of some on his side—to say nothing of an enemy making every effort to kill him. Whether destroying a land battery or sailing a crippled merchantman into action, fighting the ship's guns amid a hail of round shot and wood splinters, boarding the enemy or being boarded, Bolitho shows the stuff he is made of... a naval hero to follow, a series of exploits to savor with pleasure.

Sloop of War
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fourth novel of his adventures, Revolutionary War-era British naval hero Richard Bolitho gets his first command: the fighting sloop Sparrow. Barely into his twenties, a seaman from boyhood and the scion of a long line of seamen, Bolitho now gets his first taste of the loneliness of the captain's cabin, the full responsibility for his ship's success or failure, the danger of serving under a flotilla captain whose ambition is greater than his ability, and a passion for a woman who will try to kill him the moment he crosses her interests.

Now, I could rattle off a blow-by-blow account of the actions in this book, including exquisitely suspenseful sorties up the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, and the character conflicts—such as, in particular, the friction between Bolitho's first and second lieutenants, one of whom is himself a colonist at war with the country of his birth. But you might as well take it on faith that there are a lot of goings-on, some explosive and others of the slow-burning variety, in this book full of character and incident; and that it is well worth the time of anyone who has an interest in the golden era of naval warfare. In fact, I believe this series has a popular appeal that could bring new readers to the genre.

Face it, Alexander Kent (whose real name is Douglas Reeman) is no C. S. Forester or Patrick O'Brian. His fiction does not have the depth and richness of the Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin sagas. But if the tradeoff for profound literary merit is brute sex appeal, this book may make the sale. To put it crassly, you can tell which end of the naval-historical-novel spectrum a book is on—the sliding scale between "literary treasure" and "essential beach-or-poolside accessory"—by how good the hero is meant to look with his shirt off, and how much of his time he spends that way. Except while bathing under the deck pump or over the ship's side, Horatio H. and Jack A. were never seen in less than full uniform outside the privacy of their quarters; and the world heaves a grateful shudder for it. Meanwhile, our Dick B. seems to make a habit of strutting the deck in little more than his breeches, and to judge by the reactions of onlookers... Yes, girls, there may be something in naval warfare for you too!

To Glory We Steer
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

The title of this fifth Richard Bolitho novel comes from the lyrics of the song "Heart of Oak," one of the great musical symbols of Britain's sea power in the era of sail, wooden-hulled vessels, and great roaring guns that had to be loaded a shot at a time. As the newly appointed commander of His Britannic Majesty's Frigate Phalerope, Dick Bolitho will need a heart of oak. His mission: to bring his crew back from the brink of mutiny in time to face an enemy that shares his very flesh and blood.

It turns out to be a very bloody business. Mauled by an American privateer before he has even begun to make an efficient, fighting crew out of some right awkward hands, Bolitho is further hampered by a nasty piece-o'-work of a First Lieutenant, a Second Lieutenant with feet of clay, a frankly evil ship's purser, and a seaman specializing in whisper campaigns and diabolical conspiracies. Add to that the fact that his hot-headed older brother Hugh has gone over to the enemy—a fact Bolitho only realizes when he himself is taken prisoner—and you've got the all-but-assembled pieces of a machine for grinding young naval heroes into mincemeat. All this at a moment when the Royal Navy is in danger of losing its strategic foothold in the West Indies—which would spell doom for Britain's worldwide military and commercial empire. Will Bolitho be able to get on top of all these problems before the decisive naval fleet action of the decade?

Fans of naval history will love this book for giving them ringside seats at the Battle of the Saintes, the last crucial turning point in the tactics of naval warfare before the time of Nelson. Lovers of pure entertainment in print will delight in the simmering hostilities of the Phalarope's quarterdeck, the mystery of the purser's murder, the melodrama of the two brothers divided by war, and the suspense building up to the inevitable mutiny and its resolution. And followers of great sea warriors will feel the glow of Bolitho's aura of leadership, enabling us to overlook minor glitches like the series' need for a better editor. (Seeing "purser" misprinted as "pursuer" was only one of the numerous distracting gaffes to have plagued this book and its predecessor.)

If I could write authentic historical fiction set in the age of wind power, when flintlock guns were the latest thing and no one had ever thought of breaking a line of battle before, I would gladly do so. Since I cannot, I am more than content to absorb the fantastic yarns of Douglas Reeman, a.k.a. Alexander Kent. And I needn't worry about running out of them soon... there are 23 of them to go, and more may yet be written!

Ramage's Challenge
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

The coast of Tuscany: how well Captain Nicholas Ramage knows it. He ought to, after spending most of his childhood in Italy, having plucked the beautiful Marchesa di Volterra off its shores during his first independent command, and even more recently having turned French gunboats against its shore in a brilliant attack on an enemy troop convoy. And now, in the fifteenth of eighteen adventures of this high-born British naval hero, he is back with a real challenge for his genius. His mission: to rescue British naval and military officers, as well as some important civilians, who were caught and taken hostage when France resumed hostilities. What makes it particularly chancy is the fact that they are supposed to be locked up in a walled town 30 miles inland from the Tuscan shore. Soon Ramage's seamen will have to learn a new trick: marching!

But this is only the beginning. While Ramage wonders about both of the women in his life—the still dear, though no longer passionately loved, Marchesa last seen in Paris during the brief peace, and now either in prison or dead; and his vivacious bride Sarah, who had escaped with him from Brest when the war began again, only to be put on board a ship that never made it home—not knowing whether or not his wife lives, Ramage risks all on a series of daring gambles, many of them under the knowing gaze of an admiral near the top of the seniority list, to say nothing of a vexing army colonel who all but asks Ramage for a duel on his own quarterdeck.

His private miseries contrast remarkably with the brilliant maneuvers Ramage carries out in this book, all without the loss of a single hand—his record in that area is remarkable, you know. All I have to complain about, besides the hero's habit of woolgathering during the moments leading up to an order whose timing is crucial—and the fact that this habit is so obviously convenient to the requirements of an author who likes to indulge in passages of historical and nautical explanation—all I have to complain about, I say, is that there will only be three books in the series after this, and Ramage ought to have quite a career ahead of him!

Ramage at Trafalgar
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sixteenth of eighteen Lord Ramage Novels, the point of view of a fictional British naval hero gives us ringside seats at one of the greatest sea battles of the age of sail: Trafalgar. Though Napoleon still had ten years' worth of war to wage, after the Battle of Trafalgar he and his allies never again had a chance to invade England and conquer by sea.

The year is 1805. A combined fleet of some 40 French and Spanish ships has taken shelter in the harbor of Cádiz. News of this development reaches both Ramage—still a dashing young frigate captain with his whole career ahead of him—and Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of such battles as Copenhagen and the Nile. In spite of his meager stature, the loss of one eye and one arm, and the scandal of his liaison with Lady Hamilton (another officer's widow, with whom he fathered a child while both were married to other people), Nelson is his country's best hope at a crucial point in the war against France. His brilliant tactics have revolutionized naval warfare, changing the nature of a fleet battle from a stately encounter between two straight, roughly parallel lines of ships to a headlong rush at a right angle to the enemy's line, with the unprecedented object of destroying the whole enemy fleet. And now these tactics are the only guarantee against Napoleon's unbeatable army landing on British shores.

Though His Majesty's Frigate Calypso took no part in the battle of Trafalgar, its crew and its captain adorn the historic battle with some fictional exploits of their own. Nevertheless, the great fascination of this novel is the opportunity to witness, as if at first-hand, the suspenseful preparations for the battle in which some 75 ships took part, including the largest ship in the world at that time. Vast forces are arrayed against each other, enormous stakes are on the table, and yet naval historian Pope stresses that through it all, both sides were at the mercy of fickle winds, menaced by treacherous shoals, and hampered by a shortage of spars, sails, rigging, and stores after a long blockade. Then there was the question of whether or not the French and Spanish would come out of Cádiz to fight at all; a question finally decided by a complex web of circumstances, including political intrigues, financial desperation, and a commander-in-chief's loss of nerve.

The results are spectacular, though for full details you might want to check into a non-fiction account. Not to be outdone by his nonfictional colleagues, Ramage takes some thrilling risks with his little frigate, in spite of frequent reminders that frigates are not supposed to get involved in the battle. And though Nelson's death made his final victory bittersweet, Ramage lives on to fight in two more novels: Ramage and the Saracens and Ramage and the Dido.

The Sorcerer's House
by Gene Wolfe
Recommended Ages: 14+

Baxter Dunn is an educated prison parolee who has come to a small midwestern town in the hope of starting over, with nothing but a small allowance from his mother to do it with. In a somewhat ambiguous narrative that appears to be pieced together from letters to and from Bax, many of them involving his estranged twin brother, he goes from not knowing where his next meal will come from to owning a huge house, complete with servants, plus a car, an enormous tract of riverfront property, and almost ridiculously abundant wealth. But how this happens is very mysterious, even spooky.

Things start to get weird when Bax moves into an abandoned mansion. When he goes to the realty office responsible for the house to ask whether he might live there for free in exchange for doing repairs, he finds out that the mysterious former owner willed the house to him years ago. This is only the first of numerous creepy discoveries Bax makes in and around the house, including people who seem out of touch with the flow of time, animals that change into persons without anyone quite noticing, a vampire who steals laundry off the clothesline, a killer who leaves her victims' body parts as love-gifts, a talisman that can make wishes come true, machines that come to life, a pair of teenage twins each of whom turns out to be dangerous in his own way, and surprise revelations about Bax's own family.

It's the kind of loopy, magical mystery that ought to be familiar to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, laced with riddles and monsters and ghosts and surprise twists that may force you to re-read it in a different light. Though at times it strains the credibility of even the most willing reader, The Sorcerer's House has the peculiar sort of charm that makes you worry about what sort of man the narrator will prove to be. And though the ending may leave you in some doubt as to exactly what happened, the adventure itself is full of outrageous, magical fun. And it may be a good way into the fantasy novels of Gene Wolfe, whose other books include The Wizard Knight, The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, and a trilogy of novels about a soldier named Latro who wakes up every morning with no memory of his life before. For once words fail me; I cannot explain why, but for some reason I just want to read them all.

Litany of the Long Sun
by Gene Wolfe
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book is actually two books in one volume. At the same time, it is only half of a book. Litany of the Long Sun contains the first two parts of a quartet of fantasy novels collectively known as The Book of the Long Sun. Within this first half of that greater book are the lesser titles Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun. The second half, for your information is Epiphany of the Long Sun, and it in turn consists of Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. Whew! Now that that's perfectly clear...

These titles evoke religious rituals in a strange, dying, alien world. And the cover art suggests a certain decayed grandeur, combined with a hint at what in the universe a "long sun" might be. But it was the first sentence of the book that made me want to read it. I resisted buying it because of the hefty price tag on books of the "quality paperback" persusasion. Still, on my every visit to a certain bookstore, I picked it up, fondled it, looked at the cover, and re-read the first page or so. I couldn't get it out of my mind. Something about the words "Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court" filled me with the conviction that I must inevitably read this book, some time or other. That time came when a 40%-off coupon and a gift card combined to put this book in range of my pocketbook. I still haven't bought Epiphany of the Long Sun, though. As much as I enjoyed this book, I still think $20 is too much to pay for a book that has been in print since the year 2000 (and the separate books within it, since the early 1990s). Right now my strategy is to wait until the Borders going-out-of-business sale reaches the stage where sci-fi/fantasy books are 40% off, and hope that somebody doesn't buy the copy of Epiphany of the Long Sun that I've been caressing and coveting on my recent visits.

The story does indeed take place in a strange, decaying, dying world—a hollow, cylinder-shaped world illuminated by a long, straight beam of heat and light, whose rotating shade provides a rhythm of night and day to the cities and fields all around it. A world in which one can gaze up into the sky and see a faraway country, and perhaps a winged person gliding around at dizzying altitudes. A world where, after hundreds of years, people have forgotten that they are on a ship, and in which the leaders who put them there and who sometimes speak to them through glorified computer monitors are revered as gods: sacrificed to, prayed to, and feared.

In a rough part of a rough city in that world, an idealistic young priest named Silk receives a revelation from a minor god called the Outsider. His mission is simply to save the neighborhood manteion, more or less a combination of church, school, convent, and community service center—though, on that very same day, the cash-strapped church has been sold to a vile crime lord. Silk undertakes to save his manteion by any means, including burglary if necessary; but without meaning to, he becomes the center of a political revolution, and stumbles upon some mindblowing secrets that lurk beneath the streets of his city.

Author Gene Wolfe, regarded by some as one of the most eloquent voices in contemporary fantasy, writes with an intelligent style and clarity of detail that furnishes his bizarre new world with a sense of reality. Even so, his sense of pacing sometimes irritates me. At times events roll forward at such a leisurely pace that very little time passes within a pile of pages a half-inch thick; then there are bewildering leaps ahead that make you wistful for those hunks of deliberate exposition. I did not think, after reaching the end of Nightside the Long Sun, that I would have been happy reading it as a stand-alone novel; it comes to such an inconclusive conclusion. But having been on, around, under, and in Lake of the Long Sun, I won't deny that I'm impressed. Silk is a protagonist to watch, and the possibilities of his situation, and that of the world he lives in, are such that I really look forward to reading what comes next.

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