Book Reviews

Book Review: Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester – Horatio Hornblower Sails in Central America

The Horatio Hornblower series, written by C.S. Forester, was written much the same way the Star Wars series was. Forester wrote Beat to Quarters first, and it ended up being the sixth book chronologically in Hornblower’s life.

Away from his native England, Hornblower is Captain of the frigate Lydia. He’s been ordered to the Pacific coast of South America to give a boost to the rebels there against Spain. However, right after he manages to deliver a Spanish ship of the line to the rebels, he receives new orders that England and Spain are now uneasy allies and must undo what he has done.

To complicate matters further, he has taken on board the Lydia Lady Barbara Wellesley. She is fleeing Central America ahead of illness with her maid. The two are being transported in quite an uncomfortable situation when Hornblower comes across the Natividad, that ship of the line, once again.

Beat to Quarters is an excellent book. It really gets to the heart of who Hornblower is, and does so without contradicting the books that Forester wrote afterward. I give him tremendous credit for not altering details to suit him as his character unfolded through the years. There are gaps in Hornblower’s history, and I assume that had he lived Forester would have filled them in, but the story in Beat to Quarters flows nicely with what I’ve read so far.

The attention to detail is great without becoming tedious. As someone who has zero knowledge of what it was like to be in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, I found that Forester struck the right balance of giving me the information to understand what was happening without having the story bogged down.

The characters are well-developed. Lady Barbara is a new entry, and by the end of the book, I had full knowledge of her character, despite her presence being intermittent. She all but disappears during the descriptions of his great battles, but her actions in just a few paragraphs or a single page around the fringes of what’s happening give the insight that’s needed to advance her and make her interesting. Bush is here as well. He has been with Hornblower on and off through the years – at one time as his equal. The few statements he makes to Lady Barbara talking about his Captain give great insight into why Hornblower’s ascent ahead of him has never led to hard feelings between the two.

It’s Forester’s insights in Hornblower himself that are riveting. Having the Captain see in himself characteristics he doesn’t like and always seems to beat himself up over the slightest indiscretion or display of his human side creates a character that is multi-dimensional. It’s easy to root for Hornblower as he’s not arrogant despite his continued success. His personal life is mentioned mostly in passing in Beat to Quarters, although the relationship between him and Lady Barbara does take a few interesting turns with her confined to the ship.

Probably the best quality of the book was the evolution of all the characters. One that I found interesting was how the Central American rebellion against Spain, El Supremo, changed throughout Beat to Quarters. In the end, Forester brought him around to a place that was much different from where readers first see him. This also helps shed light on Hornblower as it affects him. El Supremo is definitely a villain in the book, but in the end, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him. At the same time, Hornblower (and Forester by extension) use the moment to point out how what’s happened to him has happened many times before, including to people at the hands of England herself.

I enjoyed Beat to Quarters a tremendous amount and couldn’t put it down during the battle sequences. It’s well-written and the characters are interesting. Even someone with as little knowledge of seafaring as I found it easy to understand – kudos to Forester for that. I can’t wait to continue the series.