Every once in a while, a lucky reader encounters a series of books they just can’t read fast enough. These books aren’t read so much as inhaled.
That was the experience I had enjoying the HORNBLOWER series by C.S. Forester. Wow, what a ride. I plowed through the entire series of 11 books in no time.
I was drawn to the books after watching the great miniseries starring Ioan Gruffudd, which were based on three of the novels. The miniseries took a great deal of license with the books, making them quite melodramatic. When I picked up the first book, I expected some Victorian moralizing about how men who adhere to hard work, honor and duty can’t lose, while everybody else is lazy and villainous. Boy, was I surprised.
The books are taut nautical thrillers–very realistic and entirely gripping. The series follows the career of Horatio Hornblower, a man who is so self-effacing and doubting that he continually strives toward perfection, knowing England and its vaunted Navy, in a death grapple with France during the Republican and subsequent Napoleonic Wars, will not abide failure. He starts his career as a midshipman and ends as Admiral of the Fleet. Each book follows him at a different stage of his career, from midshipman to lieutenant to captain to commodore to a lord to admiral. He is at virtually every major event of the wars, minus its big battles such as Trafalgar, as Forester preferred to put Hornblower into situations where he could act on his own.
Hornblower’s successes are the result of continually paying attention, experience, innovative thinking and just plain luck, but as his second wife puts it, a fortunate man makes his own luck by optimizing his chances. He isn’t a superhero. In fact, he continually doubts himself and, being a melancholy sort and a bit of a pessimist, isolates himself from the company of others. His only real friend, Bush, with whom he serves through most of the series, is kept at arm’s length while they’re on duty.
The nautical aspects of the series are thoroughly enjoyable. I appreciate being treated as an adult by a novel, without every single thing explained to me. The books are packed with nautical terms and maneuvering to the extent they at times read like procedurals for wood sailing ships of the time. In my view, this only makes the storytelling that much richer. When the action occurs, it is completely realistic and therefore twice as gripping. The naval battles are edge-of-the-seat reading.
Published between 1938 and 1962, the series did very well–so well, there was a story circulating during Forester’s day that whenever his publishing company was showing poor profits, they sent a representative down to beg him for another HORNBLOWER tale.
Goodreads.com lists the entire series in chronological order here, which can be helpful to find out what’s next in line.
I’ve recommended HORNBLOWER to several friends, who all told me they already read it, so maybe (probably) I was the last to know. But if you haven’t read them yet, and you enjoy historical thrillers, definitely check them out. You’ll be glad you did.