Set during the peak of the Age of Sail in the Napoleonic era, the books detail the exploits of Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral. Full of action and adventure, they manage to include shiphandling minutiae without bogging down the story. Page turners for young and old alike. I would recommend starting with Beat to Quarters (AKA The Happy Return) since the earlier books by internal chronology (yet written later) tend to be of a slightly lesser quality.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower – This short story collection covers the early career of our young hero, from his first onboard ship experience to his two and a half years of captivity in Spain. By the end, Hornblower is promoted to Lieutenant. Even though it is a short story collection, it flows quite nicely and is more of an episodic novel.
Lieutenant Hornblower – The still very young Hornblower has to deal with a tyrannous and insane Captain. He then distinguishes himself by helping in the destruction of a Spanish fortress and taking prizes.
Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur’ – Although the action is fast and furious, this one is a mite tedious. Hornblower spends a couple of years on blockade duty off the coast of France. This sort of duty was demanding and harsh, but also monotonous and performed in cold, dreary weather for much of the year.
Hornblower during the Crisis – The chronologically fourth novel is unfinished due to Forester’s death. Nothing much happens since only the first 100 pages or so are written. Hornblower is about to become a spy. Also included are a two short stories, the latter showing our hero in old age.
Hornblower and the ‘Atropos’ – This one is very episodic in a singularly annoying way. Apart from the one ship commanded throughout, there is no single thread to pull the reader along. Disappointing.
Beat to Quarters (known as The Happy Return in the UK edition) – The first novel to be written, this one is a masterpiece of plotting and action. Hornblower, in command of the frigate Lydia, heads to the Pacific coast of Central America in order to make life difficult for the Spanish colonies there. He also has his first encounter with Lady Barbara. The sailing and combat action is excellent, but one should not forget the evolution of the relationship with Lady Barbara. In the beginning, Hornblower strongly dislikes her, but in the end he loves her. And we see the process every step of the way.
Ship of the Line – Hornblower takes command of the two-decker Sutherland. He carries out five daring raids against the French, but ends up a prisoner after defeat against overwhelming odds. This one ends in a cliffhanger of sorts as our hero is imprisoned in French oppupied Catalonia. Great action, perhaps even better than in Beat to Quarters.
Flying Colours – This picks up immediately where Ship of the Line left off. Hornblower is on his way to Paris to be tried for purported war crimes. Napoleon is trying to score some propaganda points. However he manages to escape and makes his way back to England, where he finds a hero’s welcome. This one is quite introspective in some sections, with Hornblower’s cynicism and doubts coming to the fore. He hates himself in certain ways, not daring to realize how much he means to people. He is afraid of failure despite great success. And finally he cynically realizes how the British use him for propaganda as much as the French meant to. At the end of the book, we find Hornblower widowed with a young son. But Lady Barbara is also widowed. Opportunity awaits, perhaps.
Commodore Hornblower – Our hero is now married to Barbara, and in the landed gentry. He is sent on a mission to the Baltic to ensure that the Swedes and the Russians don’t join the war on the side of Napoleon. Action as usual but not a whole lot of character development.
Lord Hornblower – The action moves to the English Channel as the Napoleonic era draws to a close and the French mainland can now be invaded (ahem… liberated). The last part is pretty boring as Hornblower, together with his friends from Flying Colours, fights a guerrilla action against the new Napoleonic regime during the “hundred days” following the Emperor’s escape from Elba.
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies – A short story collection in all but name. While mildly entertaining, Forester is basically treading water here. A disappointing ending after such great novels as Beat to Quarters and Ship of the Line.