March 29, 2019

Naval Fiction

I've decided to share my thoughts on a bunch of different naval fiction books I've read over the years. This is rather disordered, but it should be useful if anyone wants to read stirring tales of the sea, of whatever era.

Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian

This is a series of 20.5 novels by Patrick O'Brian, covering the exploits of British captain (mostly) Jack Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. I've read the first 12, and they're excellent, if somewhat strange. O'Brian is a fantastic writer, with a knowledge of sailing ships and the Royal Navy that frightens even me. But they're also written in an early 19th-century style, which is a rather wrenching change from what I'm used to. I'd definitely suggest trying them, but they may not be everyone's cup of tea.

Horatio Hornblower Series by C. F. Forester

Alone of the books on this list, I didn't finish this one, another tale of the Napoleonic Royal Navy. I tried the first book, and gave up after a few chapters. For whatever reason, Hornblower's complete lack of any self-awareness really, really bothered me. But everyone else regards this series as a classic of naval fiction, and I'm sure a few of you will tell me how wrong I am. I'd be willing to try another book if someone can tell me one where he's less severely depressed about his own capabilities.

The Ship by C. F. Forester

Unlike Hornblower, I really enjoyed this one. It's a novel set aboard an RN light cruiser protecting a Malta convoy during WWII, taking a look at a single engagement. Forester covers everyone from the captain down to the loader on the Pom-Pom, looking at how all of their efforts come together to make the ship work. It's a very effective technique, and the novel itself is based upon a visit Forester made to a similar RN cruiser.

The Good Shepard by C. F. Forester

This fell somewhere between the other two Forester novels. This is a convoy novel, focusing on a rookie American captain making his first crossing of the Atlantic in WWII. It's heavily psychological, and Krause seems a fairly typical Forester character, which I didn't particularly enjoy. But on the whole, it was pretty good, and a deep look at convoy operations early in the war. Adapted to the movie Greyhound.

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat

This is a novel of the Battle of the Atlantic, drawing on Monsarrat's experience as an officer on various escorts. It's a compelling portrait of the war fought against the U-boats, from start to finish. There are lots of interesting technical details, as well as descriptions of the weather, equipment, and tension of the hunt.

Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward L. Beach

This is the inverse of The Cruel Sea, set in a different ocean. Beach was a submariner during WWII, and he uses that experience to spin an amazing tale of the war against Japanese merchant shipping. There are lots of neat details about submarine operations, as well as a portrayal of the tension of being hunted by destroyers, and the elation of managing an attack on a convoy.

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

This is the Cold War equivalent of Run Silent, Run Deep, and the book that made Tom Clancy his name. It's amazing, a story of a rogue Soviet submarine commander, and the American attempt to bring him in. Clancy knows his stuff, and it's always fun to see the USN at the height of its power. His Red Storm Rising also has many excellent naval scenes.

Carry on, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

This one is very different from the others on my list. It's a children's biography of Nathaniel Bowditch, an American mathematician who is most famous for authoring the American Practical Navigator, which immediately became the standard reference work on celestial navigation, and has remained in print in updated editions until the present day. It falls on this list because it's written in the style of a novel, and it's a lovely look at the days when the men of New England carried the infant American Flag to the far corners of the globe, as well as a tribute to an amazing man who made a meaningful contribution to the safety of sailors everywhere.

Douglas Reeman

Douglas Reeman wrote a lot of novels of the RN during WWII. I've read a couple, and they're decent, if not quite up to the standards of Monsarrat. They do usually cover weird theaters and forces, which is quite fun.

Honorable Mentions

A few series that fall more under sci-fi than under proper naval fiction are still close enough to the later genre to scratch the same itch. David Weber's Safehold series is set on an alien world, but with a technology level that ranges from ~1600 to ~1890 as the series progresses. Weber knows his stuff, and the descriptions of naval matters are excellent. Weber's Honor Harrington series is much more classical sci-fi, but he cooked the technology to capture a lot of the flavor of naval combat. I should probably mention that Weber does like to infodump, but his work is first-rate, and the first Honorverse book is available free here.

David Drake's RCN series is another good navy-in-space series, but with a very different flavor. Drake doesn't infodump like Weber, and the setting is rather less optimistic than the Honorverse, but it's still fun. The first book is also available for free.

Readers have also suggested the Caine Mutiny (source for the famous movie), A Sailor of Austria and Alastair McLean's work, none of which I have read (yet).


  1. March 29, 2019AlphaGamma said...

    On O'Brian- definitely read these if you haven't already. They are superbly written to the extent that even friends who otherwise dislike genre fiction enjoy them.

    I haven't read them in a while, but I have heard good things about Douglas Reeman, who wrote a huge number of novels both about the WW2 Royal Navy under his own name (he served in WW2 as an officer in destroyers on convoy duty, MTBs and landing craft) and about the Napoleonic Royal Navy under the pseudonym Alexander Kent.

    While perhaps not strictly fiction, Herman Melville's White-Jacket is also worth a read in my opinion- it's a partly fictionalised memoir of his 14 months as an ordinary seaman on USS United States in the 1840s, and was instrumental in the abolition of flogging in the USN.

    On space-naval SF:

    Quite a lot more of both the Honorverse and RCN series are available for free and legally online here- Mission of Honor has the latest selection of Honorverse stuff, while When the Tide Rises is the same for RCN.

    The Honorverse is fairly transparently (at least at the start) an attempt to write Hornblower-in-space, and the author has admitted this. The RCN stories are an equally transparent attempt to write Aubrey-Maturin in space.

  2. March 29, 2019Philistine said...

    I'll second Douglas Reeman. The character arcs may be a bit formulaic, but what's really neat IMO is that he often focused on ship types and/or theaters that don't usually get a lot of attention - monitors, escort carriers, MTBs in the Black Sea, armed merchants, and cruiser-submarines all spring to mind.

    For more "naval war in space" you might look at Elizabeth Moon, especially the Vatta's War series (starts with Trading In Danger). It doesn't neatly track to any particular historical period AFAIK; if pressed I would say it probably most resembles the colonization period in the 17th and 18th century.

    I found Safehold to be too Weber-y for my taste, and I didn't continue past the first book. It wasn't the infodumps, which weren't all THAT bad (you know - for Weber) in this one, but rather the habit he has of inventing hyper-conservative societies which have been almost totally impervious to change for centuries or millennia... until the protagonist turns up to show them The Way, that is, at which point almost the entire society* gleefully joins in completely reinventing their culture in much less than a generation.

    • Usually everyone but the villains; and you know who the villains are because, first, they're cartoonish, mustache-twirling parodies of cardboard cutouts of black-hat-wearing Bad Guys, and second, they are the only characters in Weber's books who have anything less than glowing to say about his protagonists.
  3. March 30, 2019Pointenlos said...

    The Caine Mutiny is a classic. I have never seen the film, but the book is pretty great. Maybe a little bit too less technical for your taste, but there are different ways to tell a story. I'm still searching for another book as good as this.

    Das Boot is known as a short movie, as a long movie or as a television miniseries and since last year a new tv series. But it is an adaption of the original novel of the same name of Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Which is pretty good. The two sequels on the other hand: meh. Less nautical, more the inner life of the author. But the last one at least introduced me into the funny concept of nuclear powered cargo ships.

    I have a soft spot for Alexander Kent/Douglas Reeman's Bolitho series. But I read it as a teenager, I don't know if it stands the test of age. Or the comparison to Aubrey-Maturin or Hornblower, both which I still have to read.

    I do not recommend Patrick Robinson's novels. He worse than the worst novels of Clancy's later career.

    It's not grand literature, more a functional technothriller with a Mary Sue protagonist, but you may still be interested in James H. Cobb's Amanda Lee Garrett series. It plays in a near future (As seen from the late 90s, early 2000s, so somewhat now).

  4. March 30, 2019Johan Larson said...

    How about Alistair MacLean? He wrote "South by Java Head", "H.M.S. Ulysses", "The Lonely Sea" and "Ice Station Zebra".

  5. March 31, 2019John Schilling said...

    Since the submariners of WWII and the Cold War are already represented, I'll nominate "A Sailor of Austria" by John Biggins. Entirely fictional, but by an author who has done his homework and managed a style somewhere between O'Brian's "Aubrey-Maturin" and Frasier's "Flashman" series. Captures the feel of submarines as a very new and trouble-prone technology, and of winning victories that can't possibly matter in the name of a doomed empire.

    There are three prequels involving the same character's non-submarine adventures, on my list but haven't read them yet.

  6. April 01, 2019Manly Reading said...

    Can I recommend The Good Shepherd by C S Forester? Its really good Atlantic Convoy stuff. Like the convoy stuff in Clancy's Red Storm Rising - lots of subhunting.

    Of those you cover, O'Brien is 10/10, Hornblower I put about 9, and Alexander Kent/Reeman between 4 and 7, depending on the book. Dudley Pope also wrote the Ramage series which is a consistent 7 - 7.5, well worth a read.

  7. April 01, 2019bean said...

    Omnibus reply:

    Found some Douglas Reeman. Overall, I'm enjoying it, although it's obviously not quite on the level of O'Brian or Monserrat.

    I read the Vatta's War series many years ago. It was OK, although I definitely prefer the ones I listed here, and it didn't feel particularly "naval" in the same way they do.

    I'll have to look at the other options, although "A Sailor of Austria" sounds particularly intriguing, and I'm definitely up for more Forester so long as it's not Hornblower being depressed.

  8. April 02, 2019quanticle said...

    @Johan Larson

    Glad to see that Alistair MacLean is already mentioned. However, you left out what I thought was his best work: San Andreas. It's about a hospital ship sailing from Murmansk to Halifax, and it has to deal with the harsh arctic weather, U-boat attacks, bombing raids, etc. as it makes its journey from Russia to Canada. Along the way, the crew tries to figure out exactly why the Germans are so persistently attacking them.

  9. April 02, 2019quanticle said...


    Would you consider Red Storm Rising to be a work of naval fiction? It definitely has a lot of naval warfare in it, but the overall scenario is more of a non-nuclear World War 3 scenario, where NATO has to deal with a surprise Soviet attack into West Germany. That said, I found the naval warfare scenes in Red Storm Rising to be more compelling than The Hunt for the Red October, simply because there was more at stake -- both sides were "playing for keeps".

  10. April 02, 2019bean said...

    In retrospect, I'm not sure why I didn't include Red Storm Rising on my list. The naval scenes are definitely excellent, although there are obviously a bunch of other plotlines.

  11. April 03, 2019Alsadius said...

    Seconding Alistair Maclean - I need to re-read his stuff(last went through in university), but it impressed me back then. HMS Ulysses in particular was good on the naval side, but I haven't read his whole oeuvre.

    Hunt for Red October is great, but if you want naval in particular there's Red October, about 20% of Red Storm Rising, and little else that he ever wrote goes back on the sea for more than a few minutes(except the truly awful late-career stuff like SSN).

    If you step away from books, I quite enjoyed Crimson Tide - very well-made submarine thriller. If you step away from real-world navies, James Cambias' A Darkling Sea is a really good sci-fi story set almost entirely at the bottom of an ocean, though it's more about divers than ships per se.

    Also, I am being extremely snarky by putting this in a fiction list, but George Friedman's The Coming War With Japan might technically qualify. Think of it as being Plan Nine from Outer Space for naval geeks. If nothing else, it's an object lesson in how someone smart and knowledgeable can wind up sounding like a total buffoon by drawing the wrong conclusions.

  12. April 04, 2019quanticle said...

    Are we allowed to talk about video games too? They're a form of fiction, right?

    I rather enjoyed Silent Hunter from way back in the day. It was a fun little submarine simulator.

  13. April 04, 2019bean said...

    I'm certainly not going to clamp down on discussion of naval fiction in other media. I may do a separate post on movies and/or video games at some point.

    As for video games, I've just picked up Rule the Waves, and it's proving dangerously addictive, exactly as you'd expect.

  14. April 04, 2019cassander said...

    I would think that the temeraire series would get at least a mention. Who doesn't want to read an excellently researched bit of historical fiction about how the napoleonic war would have been different if there had been dragons?

  15. April 04, 2019cassander said...


    the best 3 submarine movies, in no particular order, are Red October, Crimson Tide, and Down Periscope. This is a hill I'm prepared to die on...

  16. April 04, 2019Manly Reading said...

    Cassander - if Temeraire had stayed Hornblower with dragons as it originally promised I would agree. Instead it became Jane Austen with dragons and a 21st century mindset and my interest waned accordingly.

  17. April 08, 2019David Friedman said...

    Have you read any of Captain Marryat's books? They are the original Napoleonic wars British navy novels, written by someone who was actually a participant--Mr. Midshipman Easy was published in 1836. Judging by the one I read, a bit odd in style to a modern reader.

  18. April 09, 2019NTD_SF said...

    Regarding Hornblower, if you started with "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower" you might want to try skipping to "Beat to Quarters." This was the first published, and takes place when Hornblower is more capable and accompished.

  19. April 09, 2019bean said...

    @David Friedman

    I have not. If I feel the need for tales of the RN of that era that don't come from Patric O'Brian, I'll take a look.


    I started with Beat to Quarters. It just didn't work.

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