Book Review: “Ramage’s Devil” by Dudley Pope

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1803. After a year of peace, war is on again between France and Britain. The sudden renewal of hostilities catches Royal Navy Capt. Nicholas Ramage and his bride Sarah in the middle of their honeymoon in France, guests of a nobleman who, just as suddenly, is arrested and sentenced to be transported to the notorious penal colony of Devil’s Island. And a certain upstart First Consul, soon to become Emperor Napoleon I, demonstrates his barbarism by ordering the arrest of all British subjects caught on French soil — including civilians, and even women — in a radical break with the hitherto conventions of civilized warfare.

The thirteenth Lord Ramage Novel thus begins with Nicholas and Sarah’s white-knuckle escape from certain imprisonment for the duration of the war, if not worse. Aided and abetted by four Frenchmen who can’t abide Bonaparte, the Ramages recapture the British brig Murex, which a mutinous crew had surrendered to the French, and with the aid of the loyal officers and crew left on board as prisoners, sail her out under the shore-batteries of Brest. This leads to an encounter with the British fleet just arrived to blockade Brest, and then in turn to a reunion with Ramage’s beloved frigate Calypso and all its officers and crew, who had been recommissioned in a hurry under a captain who proves to be so mad with drink that he has to be removed from command (the second of at least three similar storylines in successive books of the series). By a perhaps ludicrously improbable series of events, Ramage finds himself once again in command of Calypso, reunited with Aiken, Southwick, Orsini, and the rest, and sent to the insalubrious coast of French Guiana to rescue his French Royalist friend, and other political prisoners, from an evil fate on the aptly named Île du Diable.

I’ve already given away enough of this book’s points of interest, if not too many. Let it suffice to say that to love the Lord Ramage series is to love this book, combining an attractive set of characters, modeled on present-day dramatic ideals, with daring naval exploits realistically depicted according to the maritime practices of the period—and what a fascinating period!

One might squirm a bit at author Pope’s over-reliance on the literary device of turning an interesting excursus into some facet of naval life, such as the habits of the tropical boatswain bird or the precise definition of “point-blank range,” into an instance of a character lapsing into daydreaming. This does become a repetitive pattern, and the characters’ motivation for such bouts of woolgathering seems at times improbable if not bizarre; but with the right sense of humor you can read these in the spirit, I think, that Pope intended: as a consciously unreal, but entertaining, way of drawing the reader into a more fully real, highly colored, three-dimensional world in which wind and waves, honor and courage, and a bit of luck could change the course of history.

Recommended Age: 14+