Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

Author: C. S. Forester
Published: 1948
Website: Amazon page S. Forester is probably best known for writing the novel on which the Oscar-winning film The African Queen (starring Humphrey Bogart) was based, but his Horatio Hornblower series is considered by the internet (and the blurbs on the back cover) to be one of the best series of military fiction ever written, so I thought I would give it a shot. The first book in the series, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, is a set of short stories designed to introduce the reader to Horatio: an awkward seventeen-year old working his way toward becoming a lieutenant. Forester uses arcane naval vocabulary regularly and I often resorted to googling a term and twice accepted that the sentence I had just read should be thought of as a rhythmic (and untranslatable) Gaelic poem. But each short story was riveting, the thread which held the short stories together was quite believable, and the cast of characters which Forester created had me hoping that each sailor would either quickly fall to his death or regally land on the next deck as they jumped from ship to ship in naval skirmishes. This binary works quite well in military fiction, which tends to be based on a series of battles and exactly one main character.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower might not be a dense philosophical book about life, but it has its moments in discussions of depression, gambling, friendship, and trust in which Forester takes a step back from naval history and allows Horatio to evolve a full sense of who he is. What I love about this book is that although it has all the trappings of a stereotypical story about coming-of-age in the military, it manages to eschew the stereotype and be a swashbuckling adventure with a serious and fully developed main character: something which many of the standard mass-market airplane novels I have read over the past few years have been incapable of doing.


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