Book Reviews

Book Review: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester – Better if You Already Know the Characters

George Lucas wasn’t the first to craft his Star Wars saga out of order. C.S. Forester began his Horatio Hornblower series with a novel that is now in the middle part of a series of eleven books that take place in the British Navy during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Mr. Midshipman Hornbower starts the series off, although it was not the first written. It introduces the character and creates a background for him. It is actually a series of short stories as Horatio embarks on his first assignment as a midshipman in the British Navy prior to the turn of the 19th century. These stories were combined together into a novel, but they still read more like short stories than a novel with a central theme.

Forester’s writing style here can be difficult. Although he builds on the central character throughout the book, as well as some peripheral characters, it was hard reading as each chapter seemed to veer off on an entirely different adventure, rather than concentrating on one major even throughout Mr. Midshipman Hornbower. The characters don’t seem to have a great deal of depth throughout, the only one who really seems to grow is Hornblower as even his crewmates who are repeatedly mentioned don’t seem to get much of a chance to become rounded characters to me. This is one of the main places where it seems very obvious Mr. Midshipman Hornbower was written after there was more known about the characters contained within. Rather than building them for a new audience, it seems as if Forester is writing adventures for people who are already very well-acquainted with them already. It can be hard for newcomers to the series to start here.

Forester does let me get inside Hornblower’s head at times, so it’s not completely from a third-person perspective, but I found it difficult to bond to the character and probably would not have finished the book nor continued the series if I hadn’t already had an investment in them.

Thankfully, I picked this book up after having viewed the series of A&E films based on the character. Four of the specials are based on events in Mr. Midshipman Hornbower, which made it familiar to me and in many ways made it easier to read. Forester doesn’t dumb-down naval terminology for the reader. I had a choice to catch on quick or spend a lot of time looking up terms. With the background of what I’d seen on the series, I was able to grasp what was happening without having to resort to looking things up constantly. A glossary of naval terms (included with the series DVDs) would have helped me greatly as a reader.

However, Mr. Midshipman Hornbower is a nice series of adventures of a young boy in the British Navy. Hornblower is a mere seventeen years old at the time he first boards the Justinian and puts his fate in the hands of a toss of the coin. Later on, he is reassigned to the Indefatigable under the command of Captain Pellew, who seems to take an interest in him and see the potential Hornblower has. Not much is known of Hornblower’s background and except for a brief mention that it’s believed his father was a doctor, his family isn’t mentioned either. He doesn’t seem to communicate with them at all during his tenure in the Navy.

In Mr. Midshipman Hornbower, Horatio deals with commanding a captured French ship and bringing it back to an English port, an attempt at helping supporters of the French monarchy push back the Revolution, a crewmate who seems to have a severe disability and whom Horatio must make the best use of, an attack on the English fleet by Spanish fire-ships, the possibility of being infected by plague, and being captures and imprisoned for two years by the Spaniards.

Mr. Midshipman Hornbower does contain a good series of adventures, as witnessed by the fact that these were adapted for the television films, but it can be hard on the reader new to the series. I do recommend plugging away as it is worth it, or start with the novel Beat to Quarters which was the first novel Forester wrote in the series, and then try again from the beginning.

Although not the best novel in the Horatio Hornblower series, Mr. Midshipman Hornbower is fun for people looking to read about swashbuckling adventures at a time of low-tech fighting where the people who were on the ships truly made the difference in a battle, rather than the ship itself.

Next book in the series (link): Lieutenant Hornblower by C.S. Forester

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