The title of this fifth Richard Bolitho novel comes from the lyrics of the song “Heart of Oak,” one of the great musical symbols of Britain’s sea power in the era of sail, wooden-hulled vessels, and great roaring guns that had to be loaded a shot at a time. As the newly appointed commander of His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate Phalerope, Dick Bolitho will need a heart of oak. His mission: to bring his crew back from the brink of mutiny in time to face an enemy that shares his very flesh and blood.
It turns out to be a very bloody business. Mauled by an American privateer before he has even begun to make an efficient, fighting crew out of some right awkward hands, Bolitho is further hampered by a nasty piece-o’-work of a First Lieutenant, a Second Lieutenant with feet of clay, a frankly evil ship’s purser, and a seaman specializing in whisper campaigns and diabolical conspiracies. Add to that the fact that his hot-headed older brother Hugh has gone over to the enemy—a fact Bolitho only realizes when he himself is taken prisonerand you’ve got the all-but-assembled pieces of a machine for grinding young naval heroes into mincemeat. All this at a moment when the Royal Navy is in danger of losing its strategic foothold in the West Indies—which would spell doom for Britain’s worldwide military and commercial empire. Will Bolitho be able to get on top of all these problems before the decisive naval fleet action of the decade?
Fans of naval history will love this book for giving them ringside seats at the Battle of the Saintes, the last crucial turning point in the tactics of naval warfare before the time of Nelson. Lovers of pure entertainment in print will delight in the simmering hostilities of the Phalarope‘s quarterdeck, the mystery of the purser’s murder, the melodrama of the two brothers divided by war, and the suspense building up to the inevitable mutiny and its resolution. And followers of great sea warriors will feel the glow of Bolitho’s aura of leadership, enabling us to overlook minor glitches like the series’ need for a better editor. (Seeing “purser” misprinted as “pursuer” was only one of the numerous distracting gaffes to have plagued this book and its predecessor.)
If I could write authentic historical fiction set in the age of wind power, when flintlock guns were the latest thing and no one had ever thought of breaking a line of battle before, I would gladly do so. Since I cannot, I am more than content to absorb the fantastic yarns of Douglas Reeman, a.k.a. Alexander Kent. And I needn’t worry about running out of them soon… there are 23 of them to go, and more may yet be written!