Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lord Hornblower

Lord Hornblower
© 1946 C.S. Forester
318 pages



      The year is 1814, and Sir Horatio Hornblower, commodore in his Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy, has been sent to the coast of France on a secret mission. The crew of the gunship Flame have rebelled against their abusive captain and are offering their ship to Napoleon in return for amnesty and a new start. This cannot be tolerated: mutiny is intolerable even when justified, but treason?  Hornblower must somehow capture a ship of men who know they are damned if they surrender to him, and so before they make good on their threat to humiliate Britain by delivering Flame to France.

One thing leads to another, and a book about mutiny becomes the story of French political intrigue during the last months of the Napoleonic wars: a captured French noble approaches Hornblower and suggests that if the two of them work together to capture one of France’s nearby port city, they may be able to liberate northern France from Napoleon’s rule and do their part to send the naughty Corsican back to the hell that spawned him. This potential rebellion, unlike the similar Anglo-French Royalist effort in “Frogs and Lobsters”, stands a good chance of succeeding: Napoleon’s armies are pressed from all directions by the Austrians, Prussians, and Anglo-Spanish forces in Iberia.

And so Hornblower is thrust into the land war in France, participating in Napoleon’s defeat. While his wife Barbara helps host the Congress of Vienna, he travels to the interior of France to drink with old friends to the honor of other friends who did not survive the great conflict. When Napoleon escapes from Elba and makes France his once more, Hornblower -- who has had a long-standing price on his head by Napoleon’s men -- must flee for his life through the countryside, facing mounting peril.

Lord Hornblower is easily one of Forester’s better Hornblower works for me:  the adventure took me completely, and the many plot twists kept my on my heels, wondering where Forester would take me next -- and what he might do, for the gloves were off in this book.  I half-expected the book to end with Hornblower facing a firing squad. Lord Hornblower would be a fitting end to the series if Forester had written them in chronological order, given that it finally ends the long war with France that began with the Revolution in Midshipman Hornblower and ties up loose ends with various characters. The book was also published in 1946, and I can't help but wonder if the characters' manifest joy at the end of the war -- and their horror when Napoleon escapes to begin it anew -- are the result of Forester's own relief that the destruction during his own day in Europe had finally ended.

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Inside cover art: click for full-sized image.

I have two more Hornblower books to enjoy, but I suspect compared to this they're going to feel anticlimactic.

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