Beat to Quarters is, in one sense, the first novel in the famous series of Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester, and in another sense it’s the sixth. This is, in fact, the first novel Forester published about Hornblower, a captain in Her Majesty’s Navy during the early part of the 19th century. He went on to publish ten more, some of which chronicle Hornblower’s life before Beat to Quarters, and some of which follow his career after it. I happen to be reading them not in published order but in the order of Hornblower’s career, so I find myself only now, after five other novels, encountering the first information other readers ever see.
It’s 1808, and Hornblower’s ship, the Lydia, is just off Nicaragua. He has orders to sail to the Spanish Main and form an alliance against the Spanish colonial government with a landowner he will find there. The orders, like so many others, are vague and ambitious, but a man with good luck, good judgement, and good seamanship may make his fortune here. Then Hornblower discovers that his ally, the landowner, is insane (he calls himself El Supremo and believes himself to be a god), that there is a fifty-gun Spanish frigate lurking in the area, and that, worst of all, a woman wants to come on board for passage to England.
This book, like the rest of the Hornblower novels, makes for entertaining reading, but to be honest with you, I felt the entire time as if I was cheating on it — in the arms of one book and thinking of another. I am such a complete, helpless, utter fan of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels that these books are pale substitutes. I read them and think, “What would Jack do in this situation?” or “Stephen would have taken him up with a round turn,” or “He ought to know that the confidence of the captain affects the whole ship — oh, dear, that’s not this book.” I will say that toward the end of this one, when Lady Barbara Wellesley becomes a more important character, I was more drawn in and able to forget my odious comparisons. But overall, I would recommend Patrick O’Brian ten times out of ten over these. Still, in the absence of new O’Brian books, these are solid, enjoyable seafaring reads. They’re just not the superlative joy I’ve come to expect from the sea.