From the back cover:
In Beat to Quarters, it’s June 1808 and a still young Hornblower is captain of the 36-gun frigate Lydia. He sets his course for Spain and Nicaragua in his ongoing quest to cut Napoleon’s lines wherever he crosses them.
There are two ways one might choose to read the Hornblower series. The first is to read them in order of publication, in which case one starts with Beat to Quarters, and the second is to read them in chronological order, in which case one starts with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. After some consideration, I opted to take the former path, with the notion that the first novel written would contain the most by way of introductory material.
It is, therefore, without reading any of the adventures Hornblower has in his earlier days, that I first encounter him as a thirty-seven year old captain, self-doubting and self-conscious, complex and fascinating. He hides behind a gruff exterior, so aware of how he is seen in the eyes of his crew that he stifles himself on many an occasion. He’s… well, he’s almost Darcy!
Even though I know nothing about naval matters, I had no problems following the action in the book. Forester doesn’t merely focus on battles, though they’re not neglected, but also on more pressing yet unglamorous affairs of sailing life, like obtaining sufficient provisions and making necessary repairs. Moreover, he manages to make all these things interesting. I also loved how all of the crew’s successes are due to experience, training, and a great deal of hard work, not some random deus ex machina.
Lastly, the character of Lady Barbara, while not fully fleshed out in and of herself, is used as a catalyst to challenge some of Hornblower’s preconceived notions about women (he likes “clinging incompetence”), and all the bits concerning their interaction are great. I hope we see her again in future books.