Ramage’s Trial by Dudley Pope

Ramage's Trial by Dudley Pope

It’s been over two years since I last read a Dudley Pope novel and I forgot how much I loved his writing.

In addition to including books from my favorite authors, I also wanted to include a book from as many genres as possible.  Ramage’s Trial meets both criteria and is the only book from the Age of Sail genre that I’ve read this year.

For those unfamiliar with the Age of Sail genre, it is made up of historical novels, set aboard ships in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars.  The genre was created by Frederick Marryat, who served as a midshipman under Lord Thomas Cochran during the period in question.  Cochrane was one of the most daring and successful captains of the period and most of the fictional captains in the age of sail genre are based, at least in part, on him.

Marryat’s books were extremely popular during his lifetime but the birth of the modern genre is credited to C. S. Forester whose Horatio Hornblower series inspired countless authors and is still extremely popular today.  The best author in the genre is, of course, Patrick O’Brian, whose Aubrey/Maturin books were the basis of the movie Master and Commander.

Most series in the genre follow a set formula.  In the first book we meet the protagonist, early in his career, often as a midshipman. Subsequent books follow the career of the protagonist whose adventures are often fictionalized accounts of true events. 

Dudley Pope was a naval historian who was encouraged to write fiction by C. S. Forester himself and he is, accordingly, generally considered to be Forester’s successor.  His writing is at least as good as Forester’s and readers who are feeling despondent after finishing both O’Brian’s books and Forester’s, should take heart in knowing that there is another 18 book series out there waiting to be read. 

I’ve taken a break from the Age of Sail genre, not because I don’t love the books, but because Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series seems to be scratching the same historical fiction itch.  Now that I remember how much I love Dudley Pope, I may alternate back and forth between Pope and Cornwell until I’ve finished the Ramage books.

With regard to Ramage’s Trial, one of the conventions of the genre is that the protagonist generally faces a court-martial at some point in his career and for Pope’s Captain Nicholas Ramage, this was that book.  Initially I was disappointed to discover that this was a court-martial book because it means there is less action than in the typical Age of Sail novel but my disappointment was short-lived.  In Ramage’s Trial, Pope has written a brilliant court room procedural with an engaging mystery at its heart.  Once I got sucked in, I found it hard to put the book down.

As an aside, I should mention that Ramage seems to be pretty much free from character flaws of any sort and is, accordingly, a bit of a Mary Sue.  (Or Marty Sue if you insist on gender specific slang.)  This should bother me but it doesn’t.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t ever get the feeling that Ramage is a tribute to Pope’s ego.  I don’t think it was Pope’s intent to indulge in wish-fulfillment fantasy, but rather to create a character who is a remarkable hero and endowed with the qualities that one would need to find in a man whose exploits are as astounding as those attributed to the character over the course of the series.  In this, he has succeeded.  Everyone needs heroes and I will admit, with only a little embarrassment that I do in fact look up to the captains in Age of Sail novels.  Patrick O’Brian’s characters are more nuanced, and it’s this among other things that elevate his books above the genre into the realm of great literature but, there is a place for the Horatio Hornblowers and Nicholas Ramages of this world.

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