This is the only book in the Hornblower series that ends in his total defeat and loss of his ship; but that's not really a spoiler, since as we all know, Hornblower lives on to fight another day. And it wasn't really his first loss, having previously been captured and imprisoned by the Spanish some years earlier.
Here, Hornblower is fully mature, Captain of a big "two-decker" engaged in heavy combat. His resourcefulness has never been lacking and in this case his courage is tested to the limit, taking his one ship head-on into battle with four ships of equal or greater firepower. But his loss is far from being in vain, since in the course of the battle, he manages to strike a significant blow by having ... but no spoiler here; read the book and see.
It is May 1810 and Hornblower is attempting to outfit his ship, the 74 gun Sutherland, with enough provisions and sailors before he leaves for the Mediterranean. On the way he provides protection for a merchant convoy and when he arrives he goes on land to take on the French. A battle between Hornblower and four french ships ends in disaster.
I love Hornblowers professional life, his determination to be silent and mysterious and his tactical genius but his personal life is just annoying. His obsession with Lady Barbara and the guilt over Maria is more information than I need. I do like the fact that he is a flawed character but wish that less time was spent on it in the story.
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