Richard Bolitho, Midshipman

Richard Bolitho, midshipman / Alexander Kent. Originally published 1975.

And now I return to the naval novels. The Bolitho books are the lesser-known cousin of the titans of the genre, the Hornblower and Aubrey-Maturin series. Richard Bolitho, Midshipman is the eighth novel to be published but the first in internal chronological order.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

Richard Bolitho is a midshipman on the HMS Gorgon. He befriends another midshipman, Martyn Dancer, and they embark on a journey to West Africa, where they encounter adventure, excitement, and a lieutenant with a grudge.

So how is it?

The Bolitho novels are the diet soda of the naval adventure genre. They’re fine, but there’s not really very much to them. They lack the depth of the Aubrey-Maturin series, and Bolitho is not nearly as interesting as Horatio Hornblower. The Bolitho books are perfectly serviceable adventure stories that are short, undemanding, and are a little more varied than the Hornblower novels, for the most part.

I read the three novels included in the Complete midshipman Bolitho collection, and left pretty unimpressed. The Bolitho books are basically a Napoleonic version of the early Shannara novels: hampered by a rigorous adherence to all the conventions of the genre and therefore feeling somewhat empty.

Bolitho is fairly generic, he solves all of the problems he faces a little too easily, and the stakes never seem particularly high. The fact that the books feature a slightly classist undercurrent and completely one-dimensional villains doesn’t really help. Unlike, say, the Aubrey-Maturin books, the Bolitho novels are essentially Napoleonic-era British propaganda. There’s an unpleasant francophobia throughout, even present in the author’s biography.

I honestly don’t have much else to say about this book or the series in general, because there’s really not all that much there. It’s the epitome of light, fun reading. Completely undemanding and totally predictable, but still enjoyable.

Strengths:

uncomplicated, straightforward adventure

The author is still alive and writing, so there’s plenty more to read

Weaknesses:

Includes some of the negative hallmarks of British literature: unexamined classism and francophobia

There’s nothing new here, and for fiction the novels are astoundingly uncreative

Antagonists are not even remotely developed. All characters are either good or evil

Recommendation:

Fans of historical fiction and Napoleonic adventure who are looking for an easy, uncomplicated read will love this series. It’s especially recommended for fans of the genre who have already read the Aubrey-Maturin and Hornblower novels who are looking for something new. It’s also great for younger readers or those looking for something less intellectually demanding than the Aubrey-Maturin series.

I have recommended this book a couple of times, mostly to fans of O’Brian and Forester. They’ve all enjoyed it, and that’s basically how it goes: if you like the genre, you’ll like these. They’re just not as good as their better-known cousins.

Other books for people who enjoyed this one:

Flying colours / C.S. Forester

Master and commander / Patrick O’Brian

Bloody Jack / L.A. Meyer

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