June 1808, somewhere west of Nicaragua-a site suitable for spectacular sea battles. The Admiralty has ordered Captain Horatio Hornblower, now in command of the thirty-six-gun HMS Lydia, to form an alliance against the Spanish colonial government with an insane Spanish landowner; to find a water route across the Central American isthmus; and "to take, sink, burn or destroy" the fifty-gun Spanish ship of the line Natividad or face court-martial. A daunting enough set of orders-even if the happily married captain were not woefully distracted by the passenger he is obliged to take on in Panama: Lady Barbara Wellesley.
Beat to Quarters (The Happy Return in British editions) is sixth chronologically, but was the first one published, and a strong case could be made for starting with this one. For one, the first two books really are outliers, the first more a collection of short stories than a novel and the second told from a point of view other than Hornblower's. The friend who recommended these to me told me to at least start with the story of Hornblower's first command, Hornblower and the Hotspur. I'm also rather fond of Lady Barbara, who is introduced in this novel--not many opportunities in a series about adventures at sea in the Age of Sail for female characters to make their mark. I think the writing and delineation of Hornblower's character got sharper in the ensuing novels though.
This story introduces Lady Barbara, who apparently becomes a major character later, but as of yet has just met Captain Hornblower. Lady Barbara and Hornblower certainly feel affection for one another, but it only complicates Hornblower's life and career.
I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and understand that it was the first chronologically written book in the series. I hope the next few books are even better.
Forester's writing is easier to digest than Patrick O'Brian's, and I have already ordered the film version with Gregory Peck on DVD, but I found nothing endearing about Hornblower's constant fretting and pacing. I can see the parallels with Captain Kirk - stubborn determination blended with the loneliness of command, not to mention a cultured appreciation of literature (I'm talking the original Kirk here, not the reboot) - but not enough to maintain my interest, sadly. And the omniscient narrator, referring anachronistically to 'globetrotting' and Florence Nightingale, only served to distance me from Hornblower even more.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the romance element between Horatio Hornblower and Lady Barbara. It seemed almost an afterthought in some respects, and it also seemed somewhat rushed. Plus, sailor or not, Hornblower is married. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in later installments of the series.
Things I liked:
Hornblower: great character, with great flaws and strengths.
Naval battles: so tense, every moment it could go any which way I also liked that they didn't shirk away from the total
Things I thought could be improved:
It ended kind of abruptly I would have liked more.
When they won the big prize at the start I knew they wouldn't get to keep it. That shows a kind of cliché in the story that should have been avoided.
The final ship battle had me on the edge of my seat. It pulled no punches and after reading so many of these in the previous books it's great to see that he can keep it so fresh and interesting.
I had read about 4 of these novels in Jr. High and High School, but I never read this one, which is actually the first one that was written but not in chronological order of the stories. Well written.