This is the 11th outing for Thomas Kydd, once a young wigmaker in Guildford -- before he was pressed into the Royal Navy as a landsman, discovered a natural talent for life at sea, moved up the ladder to Able Seaman and then a warrant as quartermaster, was raised to master's mate, got himself commissioned a lieutenant, and finally gained independent command of a small brig-sloop. All that in a decade. Now it's 1805 and, having lost his ship through no fault of his own, and with no "interest" with the powers that be, Commander Kydd half expects to be left on the beach in favor of those with far more seniority. But Bonaparte is on the verge of launching his invasion fleet and if that happens, it's all over for Britain. The Navy needs every man and officer and Kydd has unknown friends willing to do him a good turn -- like seeing that he's made post. He gets L'Aurore, a newly captured French frigate, lightly built and of rather old-fashioned style but very agile, and so trim she can make headway even in the lightest breeze. So Kydd acquires a new crew (the hard way -- and they don't like it even a little bit) and off he goes to join Admiral Nelson's Mediterranean fleet. And Our Nel becomes the focus of the book, as seen through the eyes of Kydd, the junior captain in the fleet, and from the close-up viewpoint of Midshipman Bowden, newly assigned to Victory, the Admiral's elderly flagship.
It's important to remember that Nelson is not a British national hero merely by the effects of history. In fact, he was the greatest celebrity of his own day, idolized not only by the majority of officers and seamen of the Royal Navy but by virtually all the civilian inhabitants of Britain. His status was even greater than that of Churchill in World War II, and far exceeded the renown of 20th century military figures like McArthur and Patton. Partly, of course, this is because of his successes against the enemy and his larger-than-life personality but also because, unlike in modern warfare, he was on his own when it came to making strategic decisions. The Admiralty was more than six weeks away in sailing time; the architects of the naval war in London had simply to make what plans they could and then stand back and trust their fighting admirals to make the right choices. And Nelson deserves the adulation. Kydd had known Nelson from the great victory at the Nile and the commander-in-chief has a high regard for Our Hero's abilities. It's well known, in fact, that Nelson was partial to officers who had come up to the quarterdeck through the hawse-hole -- his own flag captain and lieutenant were self-made men like Kydd -- so Stockwin isn't just being fanciful.
In war, context is everything to a strategist. Stockwin does a good job of laying out the intricacies of diplomatic and political affairs in the Mediterranean, what with the Russians, the Ottomans (especially the individualist governors in the Greek dependencies), the remains of Venice, independent Naples and Sardinia, and the Balkan states. Being a frigate captain, as Kydd observes with a sigh, involves a good deal more than just being able to lay a course. The author also spends considerable time on the geekier aspects of running a frigate or a three-decker, from watering to signals. And his battle scenes are especially vivid, as is the death of Nelson in his (and his nation's) moment of triumph.
If I have a complaint about this episode in Kydd's career, it's that it's not *long* enough -- barely 300 pages. L'Aurore doesn't join up with Nelson's Mediterranean Fleet until the halfway point and much of the long chase and return across the Atlantic in pursuit of Villeneuve is compressed into too few pages. This lead-up to the climax at Trafalgar should be the focus of the story -- it was certainly the focus of the war at sea against Bonaparte, and everyone knew it -- and while chase and the great sea battle don't get short shrift, exactly, there ought to have been far more detail and extended description and discussion, especially in its earlier phases, which I personally would have fascinating. Calder's inconclusive confrontation with Villeneuve -- a fascinating and not well-known encounter -- ought to be good for fifty pages by itself, not just a couple of sentences. And why couldn't we see some of this from the French viewpoint, since Stockwin doesn't hesitate to jump to the First Lord and the Prime Minister to explain things. At least the desultory romance between Kydd's sister, Cecelia, and his best friend, the aristocratic and not particularly likable Nicholas Renzi (he's become a self-absorbed whiner) kept somewhat in the background this time by the press of events.