Talking about the Hornblower series like this came somewhat out of left field for me. Despite being a big fan of learning and especially with regards to history of all kinds, historical fiction leaves me cold. The only exception to date proved to be the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell which I had been listening to in chronological order from Sharpe’s perspective as opposed to publication order. When I mentioned this to somebody recently they recommended I give the Hornblower series a try as it is somewhat similar albeit focusing on the Royal Navy.
I decided to try it during a Christmas period sale on Audible and don’t regret it at all. The first book begins with Hornblower as a seventeen year old midshipman. Understandably being seventeen he is incredibly nervous albeit clearly quite intelligent. He seems to be far too intelligent for most teenagers these days and yet far too emotional at first to not be one! His shipmates slowly start to take to him – especially after a few games of Whist – with the exception of a somewhat vindictive man called Simpson.
The book is definitely full of interesting characters and adventures. The French captain somewhat focused on his cargo of rice, the high-ranking officers testing Hornblower on his Lieutenant’s examination and a somewhat unusual upper-class lady all come to mind.
However the book can have a few negatives depending on your opinions and tastes. Firstly despite the excellent narration by Christian Rodska who is well respected in the field of audio, his accents for the Spanish and French can be extremely broad. The easiest comparison I can think of is an audio where all the Scots would sound like Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons.
I understand that a large part of that is down to how they were written. This book did come out originally in 1950 after all so one has to make some allowances when reading or listening to it nowadays. Tied into that is the use of very out of date and offensive language when referring to certain groups as well as the treatment of one character who seems to have some form of mental health issue. I won’t say which as I simply wish to avoid putting my foot in my mouth if it turns out I interpreted the character incorrectly.
For obvious reasons this can make the audiobook somewhat of a hard listen if you have a low tolerance for such things. However I wouldn’t consider that a failure of the audiobook per se. That is more of an issue of the period in which it was written. Plus it’s set during the 17th century so there is that as well. Personally if the audiobook removed the aforementioned problematic parts I wouldn’t quite know how to react. It would strike me as similar to the censorship of Mark Twain and other such authors to create ‘school appropriate’ versions of the books in American schools. Pretending it never existed wouldn’t mean it actually never existed.
Despite all this I consider this audiobook enjoyable enough if you have a fondness for historical fiction or naval stories. Hornblower certainly seems like a likeable enough character given the period and he has more than a few capable characters alongside him. The story is both written and narrated well making it easy to follow the flow of the action. There were more than a few times where I lost track of time due to being too invested in ship battles and various forms of naval chicanery. I do wish however – as I mentioned in the last column on sound – that there had been some inclusion of ocean sounds such as waves crashing against the ship in storms and the like, maybe even include a sea shanty or a naval sounding tune but I understand such things have their limits. Even Audible couldn’t afford a twelve pounder cannon to be fired I’m sure!
In conclusion the story may have more than it’s fair share of issues to modern ears but if you enjoy naval stories or if you can get in the right mindset it is rather easy to get swept up in the adventure. I’m certainly more than willing to give the second book in the series a try. Although probably not for a while.