© 1962 CS Forester
Young Horatio Hornblower flourished as an officer in the King's service during the general European war against the fledgling French republic, the war having given an ambitious and intelligent officer like himself plenty of opportunities for promotion. Hornblower rose swiftly through the ranks owing chiefly to his keen mind and penchant for taking risks, but he is able to call upon neither strength in civilian life: struggling to survive on a commander's half-pay, Hornblower is roped into marrying a young woman whom he does not love. He has sprinted across mast-heads without a net and bearded French lions in their dens innumerable times, but he does not have the courage to break a young woman's heart. News that France is now ruled by a swaggering little man from Corsica who fancies himself an emperor comes as a great relief to him, and the newlywed commander is all-too-happy to accept his first real command, the sloop Hotspur. At his side is the implacable Mr. Bush. What's more, he will once again be serving under his beloved captain from his midshipman days, Commodore Edward Pellew. Although my own experiences watching the television series have undoubtedly influenced my judgment, I was just as happy as Hornblower to see Bush and Pellew again.
France's First Republic is steadily replaced by its First Empire as Napoleon gathers more power around himself, and Hornblower is ordered to troll the French coast for fisherman to bribe, seeking news of the French fleet. These initial orders become more aggressive as Napoleon readies for war with Europe: Hornblower and the fleet his Hotspur is part of blockade certain port cities and are eventually told to sack the annual Spanish delivery of gold from the New World: Spain intends to use the money to assist France in a newborn alliance. Hornblower and the Hotspur contains many of the legends told about Hornblower in his later years -- how he discreetly showed mercy on a man by allowing him to escape to the USS Constitution, or how he picked up a not-yet exploded shell and threw it back into the water, saving his ship. Despite this, I struggled through the book, forcing myself to march ahead: this book more than any other is dominated by the act of sailing the ship. It's hard to enjoy details when there are so many of them.
For Hornblower, the book is a coming-of-age: he begins the book as a young man just about to be married, and looks on Captain Pellew almost as son. By the end of the book, Pellew has been promoted to the admiralty, removing him from Hornblower's service life for the most part -- although he did appear in the last book of the series, Lord Hornblower. Hornblower receives his own promotion to post-captain, and begins the next phase of his life as the master of his own series of ships throughout the Napoleonic wars.
Of the Hornblower books I've read, I enjoyed this the least, although my own reception of the book seems to differ from other Hornblower fans. I would not recommend first-time readers to the series to start with this one.