by Dudley Pope

He awakens to the sound of cannons. His frigate has been broadsided; he’s the last officer alive, and he’s already badly wounded. The ship is sinking. The French are bearing down on them. And now, having commanded his ship for just a few minutes, he must decide how to lead the most crew to survive and face the end with courage.

Ramage escapes with his honor and finally is able to open the captain’s secret orders for the mission: Rescue Italian refugees before Napoleon’s forces find and kill them. All Ramage is left with is four life boats on the open sea.

If he doesn’t act, it is sure death for the refugees. If he goes forward with the mission – but how could he with so little of the crew left?

What follows is Ramage’s story as he sets out to complete a mission that was difficult to start out with, and now nearly impossible. Can he rescue the refugees? Will his men follow their sudden captain? And what will happen when he must face his superiors back home – if he can get that far?

This novel is Dudley Pope’s first in the nautical series The Lord Ramage Novels. I’ve read a little bit of nautical fiction, all of it from the Horatio Hornblower series. (If you don’t know it, it’s worth your time to read it.) I found Ramage in a Half-Price Books clearance rack and thought I’d give it a try.

I’m very, very glad I did.

C. S. Forester himself encouraged Pope to write this novel. If this book was good enough for Hornblower’s writer, it’s good enough for me.

This novel is not at all what I expected. I looked forward to, well, a nautical adventure on the high seas. And while I did get that, the boat sunk in the first or second chapter! This is not exactly a typical beginning. However, the action kept mounting and the courage of the main character simply grew and grew. There’s a number of sudden swerves in the plot I greatly enjoyed.

Not everything is rosy about the novel, though. Ramage seems to have a hard time concentrating, as the third-person-limited narrative follows his thoughts. Pope does a fantastic job following the flow of thought, but it does bog down the speed of the story at times. On the other hand, it makes the main character much more relatable. I particularly enjoyed his cursing at not being able to handle the math of seamanship well. At one point early on, he tries to figure out how much longer the boat can stay afloat, given how much water they’re taking on. That’s a lot of math – and shows how complex sailing was!

After finished the novel, I glanced through some reviews on Amazon. The bulk of the reviews show three stars, with a smattering of five and two stars. Almost everyone seemed to mention Ramage’s unbelievable luck. While there are a handful of plot twists that depend on impeccable timing of things outside Ramage’s control, they never threw me out of the story – in fact, more than once it felt more like a relatively standard tv or movie script!

Pope excels at spreading out tension, though. More than once I felt it build deliciously over the course of an entire chapter.

At one point, I remarked to my Bride, “I like this better than Hornblower!” And then, shortly after, I found myself laughing out loud – Pope included a few brief cameos from Hornblower himself. They made fantastic little Easter eggs.

If you enjoy nautical fiction, I highly recommend this book. If you can’t stand sailing, well, obviously this one isn’t for you.

Now I need to go and find book two…

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