Book Reviews

Book Review: Hornblower and the “Atropos” by C.S. Forester – A Funeral and a Treasure Hunt

I discovered the Horatio Hornblower series after watching the mini-series on A&E a few years back. Curious as to how well the books by C.S. Forester compared to what A&E had produced, I began reading the books. The first four in the series have been good, although a bit uneven at times. Hornblower and the “Atropos” picks up the action a bit but are also more of the same.

One thing that’s important for the reader to keep in mind is that the order Forester wrote the books is different than the chronological order of events. At times this is evident as he’s trying to write these earlier books to a place where events that take place in the books he wrote first occur.

Captain Horatio Hornblower is on his way to London with his family on board a canal boat to receive his newest orders. The canal boat trip is eventful and results in Hornblower learning a great deal about what it takes to pilot a boat like this as opposed to on the high seas.

His arrival in London comes just as the city is thrown into mourning following the death of Admiral Nelson. Hornblower’s first assignment is to command the flagship for Nelson’s funeral. With the eyes of London upon him, Hornblower manages to safely deliver the Admiral’s casket to the dockside, although he also faces a hazard that requires his usual quick-thinking to do so.

Having completed this, he is next assigned as Captain of the Atropos. The ship is a sloop of the war. His destination is the Mediterranean where he is to join up with the fleet. To complicate matters even further, the King’s nephew, a German-born Prince, is part of the crew along with a hot-headed ship’s surgeon who serves as translator.

Two assignments as Captain of the Atropos take up the rest of the book. The first is to recover a treasure sunken on a British ship off the coast of Turkey. The second involves a cat-and-mouse game between the Atropos and a Spanish frigate much larger than his ship.

At the end of it all, he loses his ship and returns to England only to find his two young children ill from smallpox.

Although it gets off to a slow start, Hornblower and the “Atropos” gets much better once he is on board the ship in the title. His time on the canal boat serves to show his conflict with his wife who doesn’t understand his dedication to duty, as well as show the inner conflict he has continually demonstrated. His self-loathing and the way he beats himself up over any little error which occurs is continued here and it’s largely the foundation for what drives him throughout his career. The moments at Admiral’s Nelson can be funny at times but are also more of the same as he chastises himself any time things don’t go smoothly, whether it’s his fault or not.

His tenure as Captain of the Atropos is eventful as well, and it’s written in a way that makes it seem packed with more action. The details Forester gives are terrific, especially in regard to the attempts at the recovery of the sunken treasure. Getting into Hornblower’s head during this time is beneficial and allowed me to see exactly what he was thinking as the process went on. The process is excruciating and fascinating as what would seem like a simple process in modern times is handled quite differently.

All along, Hornblower shows the same innovation and quick-thinking he’s demonstrated to this point. It’s what’s got him noticed as an up-and-coming officer. At the same time, Forester gives this portion of the book enough action and suspense that I was glued to the page, hardly able to wait and see how the situation would turn out.

The whole plot with the young German Prince on board the ship works well, creating a personnel situation for Hornblower to deal with that provides some relief from the action, but also creates a conflict that spurs a few situations Hornblower must find unique solutions for.

The attention to detail is present as well, giving the reader a good feel for what life was like in the British Navy. I can’t imagine living under these conditions, and yet somehow the men function quite well. There are some conflicts, and some of those have major repercussions, but overall the men manage to keep themselves in good spirits. The contrast is what life was like for those who are at home.

Forester contrasts what’s happening on board the ship with Hornblower’s letters from home. Hornblower sees that as a duty as well, rather than something that’s a comfort to him. The time away from home with little contact is also a stark contrast to the military of today with the ability to remain in contact via the Internet or by phone. Months could go by in between letters, and just about anything can happen, as he sees when he arrives there at the end of the book.

Hornblower and the “Atropos” might be somewhat uneven in spots, especially between the different stories. However, once it finds its footing, the story is terrific as well-paced. There’s a good amount of suspense and drama, and the story works well overall. Those familiar with the series who are looking for more exploits with Hornblower and Mr. Bush might be disappointed that Mr. Bush doesn’t make an appearance at all in this book, but it’s a good story that’s well worth reading if this sort of period literature is something you like.

7 replies »

  1. Forester also wrote “The Good Shepherd,” a naval novel set during the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. It was adapted by Tom Hanks as “Greyhound,” a film that was scheduled for theatrical release in July 2020 but was later sold to Apple TV for streaming.

    (From a consumer point of view, this sucks; many streamers never release their content on home media – I’m looking at you, Disney+; you guys have not released any Star Wars original content on Blu-ray or DVD since Season One of “Star Wars: Resistance”! – so those of us who can’t subscribe to Apple TV will likely never see “Greyhound,” which I’ve heard is a reasonably watchable movie.)

    Great review, Patti!

  2. Right?

    And even though I subscribed to Disney+ to be able to watch the service’s original Star Wars content, I don’t have the Roku doodad that would allow me to add subtitles to shows like Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Mandalorian, two shows that I’d rather have on Blu-ray; the video quality on discs is consistently better and not dependent on bandwidth. I CAN (and sometimes do) watch Disney+ on my TV (My computer? Not so much!), but when you need subtitles, which apparently need something to decode them on the TV, Blu-rays (and even the older DVDs) are better media than Disney+ as a streamer.

    Oddly, Netflix has native subtitles that you can choose to activate or not. Disney+ apparently prefers letting gizmos like Roku provide subs for its programming.