Tuesday 30 September 2014

Tales of Blood and Glory: The Complete Midshipman Bolitho

So here's one that was sitting on my shelf for quite a long time before I finally picked it up. Then, midway through the first chapter I decided it wasn't for me. A Golden Age of the Sail novel with a focus on historical accuracy, "The Complete Midshipman Bolitho" was much too dry for my tastes. I decided to give it a little bit longer to hook me before I put it down though. And boy did this book deliver! In short order, it pick up the pace with fast, gritty, technical naval combat at it's finest!

The Bolitho Novels are 30 or so books written by author Douglas Reeman(using the name Alexander Kent) written over the span of half a century from 1960's to present day. "The Complete Midshipman Bolitho" collects the first three of those stories(by story-chronology rather than publication date--in that sense, they are similar to the excellent Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser "Swords" collection.)

Stories of Loyalty

In addition to the great descriptions of the various naval actions Bolitho participates in, the stories have a strong moral component. In fact, all of the conflicts are described by Bolitho in moral terms. As such, pirates are reviled for their cruelty, wreckers for their betrayal of their fellow seamen, and Bolitho's rival officers for their indifference towards the men under their command.

In his book "The Righteous Mind", Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes 6 fundamental moral foundations that manifest themselves in various forms in every Human culture: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. With this model in mind, I would say that the Bolitho Novels are primarily an exploration of the trait of Loyalty. Bolitho is constantly concerned with what duty demands of him, towards his King, his Family, and his comrades in the Navy. At the same time, Bolitho's Loyalty is presented as balanced. His rival officers are oftentimes portrayed as over-valuing duty, forgetting compassion for the men under their command.

Invariably, Bolitho himself is the moral compass for the stories. This omniscience in moral quandaries together with his limitless bravery does make him a bit Mary Sue character, to my mind.

Read these stories if you want action-packed Naval Adventures from the Age of the Sail. These definitely made me want to run more Swashbucklers & Seamonsters!


  1. I tried reading the first Patrick O'Brian "Aubrey-Maturin" novel and gave up after about two-thirds through. Too many pages describing the foodstuffs and not enough cannon-cannon (or as the kids today say, dakka-dakka). Have you read O'Brian and, if so, how does it compare?

    1. Hi Tiny,

      I can't say I'm familiar with O'Brian's novels.

      As far as how these 3 Bolitho Novels are paced:
      1. Length-wise, the are somewhere between a short story and a novel, so they can't go on too long before getting to the action
      2. They all start with a chapter or so of pure character story-- Bolitho meets his best friend for the first time, Bolitho goes home on holiday to visit his mother, Bolitho has an exam to determine if he will be promoted
      3. Then they get to the action which I found to be very exciting(I bore pretty easily, but I felt it was worth it slogging through a few slower pages to get to the good stuff)

      Stylistically, these remind me a bit of classic Pulps like Robert E. Howard, even though they were written considerably more recently: great, over the top action, an author whose enthusiasm for his subject matter shines through in his writing, a main character who the author is a little bit too in love with. That said, these novels are really really British and the author has more patience in getting to the good stuff.