This is the third part of a sailing navy series featuring Charles Hayden. I thought the first two were excellent, but found this one to be a curate's egg of the first order. The series to date consists of:
1) Under Enemy Colours
2) A Battle Won
3) This book, "A Ship of War."
In the wake of the fictional Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, Richard Delancey, Nicholas Ramage, Richard Bolitho, Nathaniel Drinkwater, Thomas Kydd, William Rennie, and Kit Killigrew - and the real historical officer Michael Fitton, whose remarkable career was novelised by Showell Styles - yet another hero of the age of fighting sail took to the quarterdeck in Sean Thomas Russell's first book, "Under Enemy Colours."
In the sequel "A Battle Won" and at the start of this book, Sean Thomas Russell put his half-English, half French hero Charles Hayden, who has now been promoted to the rank of Commander, back in command of the frigate Themis. (Frigates were usually commanded by an officer of the rank of captain, (Post captain in the nautical language of the time) but it was not unknown for a commander to have temporary command of a frigate in circumstances such as were described in the second book.
At the start of this book our hero is given two missions which may well prove incompatible, but this is only the start of his problems. Hayden and the crew of HMS Themis have to deal with spies, a much larger French squadron, the challenge of escaping from the French in terrible weather which creates a serious risk for British and French sailors alike of being driven ashore and wrecked, the possibility of capture - which for the half-French Hayden might mean a real danger of being sent to the guillotine as a traitor to France.
By the time this book concludes with a major naval battle - the "Glorious First of June" - Russell has fitted into the three books of this series just about everything which could happen to sailors in the 18th century navy, from battles at sea to battles on land in support of the army, from espionage on enemy soil to exchange of prisoners, from court-martials to cutting-out expeditions, from mutiny to murder, and from storm to shipwreck.
Meanwhile on land, Henrietta, the lady whom Hayden had hoped to marry but who has been given reason to believe that he has betrayed her, is being courted by a rival suitor. Large chunks of this book relate to the sub-plot of whether Henrietta will marry Charles or his rival.
Following in the footsteps of writers of the calibre of C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brien, Dudley Pope and C. Northcote Parkinson is challenging, and to make a new naval hero stand out from the mass of "fighting sail" books as Sean Thomas Russell did with the first two books, is no mean feat. is quite difficult. Like some of the best works of Forester, Pope, and O'Brien, the second book in this series, "A battle won," was not so much fiction as novelised history in which the central characters the author has created have been seamlessly inserted into a dramatised account of real historical events.
The same applies to the best part of this book, the account of the "Glorious First of June" from Charles Hayden's perspective, which vividly recreates what the battle must have appeared like from the viewpoint of those who took part in it. There were several other equally well judged sections. For example, a scene involving Sir Edward Pellew's historical command "Indefatigable" on which, of course, C.S. Forester's hero Mr Midshipman Hornblower served early in his career, correctly explained (as Forester did not) that the Indefatigable was a "razee" e.g. a former battleship with her upper deck cut away to make a particularly powerful frigate and Russell brings out exactly what advantages that gave her.
There is also a very powerful account of a shipwreck, based on a real event which occurred slightly later in the French revolutionary war.
Unfortunately large chunks of the rest of this book did not work as well for me as the first two. It's difficult to describe the problems I had with an extended sea chase in the English Channel near the start of the book without giving too much of the story away, but for one thing Hayden's tactics copied those deployed by Forester's hero in a similar situation in Hornblower and the Hotspur a little too closely. For another, I had some difficulty with the credibility of the situation described. It isn't quite impossible that a storm in the English Channel could involve the wind blowing for a lengthy period in the appropriate direction and at the necessary force to create the navigational problems which HMS Themis is described as facing in this book, though it would be extremely rare, but if this happened, French ships wouldn't be in a good position to give chase because they'd have enough trouble avoiding being wrecked themselves.
Even the better scenes of this book had one or two minor weaknesses. For example, part of the book is set on a 64-gun battleship, which during the period concerned was the smallest type of ship considered capable of taking her place in the "line of battle."
It's fair enough to make the point that vessels rated for this number of guns were not as powerful as a 74-gun ship and significantly less powerful than a three-decker like HMS Victory. However, Russell rather overstates that argument in this book, suggesting more than once that a single broadside from a hundred-gun first rate could knock out a 64-gun ship, which would not normally be true.
Indeed during the battle of Trafalgar one such 64-gun third rate, HMS Agamemnon, which earlier in her career had been Horatio Nelson's first battleship command, exchanged broadsides with the largest warship in the world at that time, the four-decker Spanish ship Santimissa Trinidad. HMS Agamemnon's gunnery was credited with bringing down some of the masts of the Spanish behemoth, contributing significantly to her capture.
I also felt that the actions of some of the characters in this book did not seem terribly plausible, and the extended scenes with Henrietta's family, which seemed to have been lifted from a poor quality Regency Romance, didn't work for me either. Mr Russell seems to be better at channelling C.S. Forester than he is at channelling Jane Austen!
I really enjoyed both the first two books in this trilogy and can recommend them: overall I don't regret reading "A ship of war" because it continued the story and it had certain passages which were excellent. But if he writes any more in this series, I hope Mr Russell can produce books which are closer to "A Battle Won" in quality than to this one.