The War at Sea in the Age of Sail is part of the Cassell History of Warfare series, edited by John Keegan. Andrew Lambert, an expert in English naval history during the age of sail, takes on the formidable task. The age of sail is defined for the purposes of this work as being from 1650, [the start of the First Anglo-Dutch war, notable in being nearly exclusively a naval affair and one which blockade and control of merchant shipping was crucial], to 1850, when steam propulsion and iron plating began to appear. It has as its major strengths an excellent survey of the anglo-dutch wars, the organization of the British and French navies (the major navies of the day), and the great naval struggles between first Bourbon France and later Napoleonic France and Great Britain. It is well illustrated and a very attractive book. It would be ideal gift for the military history buff or the C.S Forester Hornblower, or Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin fan.
The weaknesses of the work are as follows. It is quite Anglocentric and much attention is given to English commanders. Arguably this is because many of the dominant figures of the era were English: Hood, Rodney, Howe, Cornwallis, Jervis, and most of all Nelson. The book is beautiful but the battle plans and maps are not that useful. They use a mixture of illustrations and tactical plans which end up being neither revealing nor artistic. They sort of look like what a small child would draw of a battle! The one exception is a well laid out map showing Villeneuve's attempt at a breakout and Nelson's pursuit from the Mediterranean to the West Indies and back to Spain.
Because of the limited space (~210 pages) many details are skipped over - we are told that Nelson played an important role at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, but there is no actual battle plan or description. The construction of naval ships is discussed in detail at the beginning of the age, but then little mention is made of later developments, prior to the advent of steam and iron. Such improvements in diagonal cross bracing for example are not mentionned. For these greater details, however, an excellent bibliography is supplied.
In short, a beautiful book, which surveys the era of the fighting sail. It is a bit Anglocentric, but forgivably so. Maps could be improved. An excellent gift choice for the military history buff or naval fiction fan, but not for the hard core experts.
The rest of the series should be interesting, especiallyt the forthcoming War at Sea in the Iron Clad Age, and War at Sea: 1914-1945.