Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is the “first” book of the British “Age of Sail” Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. The version of the book I read, published by Back Bay Books, lists it as the first volume in the series because they have chosen to release the books as they are placed chronologically within Hornblower’s life. However, this was the sixth book in the series to be written and published (in 1950, when the first book came out in 1937) and therein lay what flaws the book has.
The book not a typical novel, but rather a collection of ten short stories. The stories detail the early events of Hornblower’s naval career. The first story, “Hornblower and the Even Chance”, begins at about 1793 with the seventeen-year old Hornblower coming aboard his first vessel as a raw wet behind the ears Midshipman. By the last story of the book we’ve seen him mature as a naval officer, and as a young man, and at the end of “Hornblower the Duchess, and the Devil” he earns his rank as a Lieutenant (setting the story up for the next book chronologically, Lieutenant Hornblower). In between his experiences run the gamut from bold success to utter failure, we see Horatio grapple with the sort of decisions he has to make while in command, and suffer the consequences of his decisions.
What keeps the book from being an immediate recommendation is this weird sense I got while reading the book that I was missing a joke, that there was some blatantly obvious subtext in the story that I wasn’t clicking in on. What I was picking up on, but not understanding at the time, is that (as I mentioned above) this book wasn’t the first of the series but was a prequel written later. Prequels are typically written with the assumption that the reader has some familiarity with the characters already, that what you are getting is less of an original story but more of the backstory and history for the characters. It felt at times that the purpose of the individual short story episodes was less to tell a good story but more to explain the why or the how of Horatio possessing some knowledge or experience that appeared in another book.
With the oddity of the book being a prequel aside, it is a pleasure to read. Most of the nautical language and terms are self-explanatory, but you may need to look up a word or two at times. The vivid nature of some of the descriptions shows Forester’s command of language and his own familiarity with naval matters and life upon the ocean.
“The boat and the brig parted company; the Marie Galante, with her helm lashed, poked her nose into the wind and hung there. She had acquired a sudden list, with the starboard side scuppers nearly under water. Another wave broke over her deck, pouring up to the open hatchway. Now she righted herself, her deck nearly level with the sea, and then she sank, on an even keel, the water closing over her, her masts slowly disappearing. For an instant her sails even gleamed under the green water.” – from Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, by C.S. Forester, p.70-71
I can not recommend this book whole-heartedly as I remain unconvinced that this book, and not Beat to Quarters (the first to be published), is the best place to start the series. But I can say that if you’ve ever fantasized about life on the high seas, or have ever been interested in late 1700s British military life, or just want a good adventure to read, then this series may be just what you are looking for.