Where to begin? This is a tough one. My CS Forester knowledge was always very limited. I know that I watched the Gregory Peck 'Hornblower' movie at one point, and that 'Flying Colours' must have been read at some point as the squeamish moment of the ligatures has endured in the memory. However, everything else has faded or is connected to the ITV television mini-series, which was based on later published novels. In fact, this opening trilogy is very connected to the Peck movie's narrative. That movie needs to be watched again.
'The Happy Return', 'A Ship Of The Line' and 'Flying Colours' were published in quick succession, followed by a long interruption due to the Second World War, and can easily be considered to be a self-contained story, detached from all the other novels. Indeed, each of the three books is also quite distinct. 'The Happy Return' is an introduction and a tale of a down-on-his-luck Hornblower assigned to a mission in South America and facing countless hardships during his duties. 'A Ship Of The Line' is a great tale of Hornblower on the ascendant, and eventually going too far and sacrificing himself in his zeal to ensure a greater victory. Finally, 'Flying Colours' is a tale of the captain's ensuing imprisonment in France and the following escape and flight back to Britain. It is a very distinct trilogy indeed.
Apart from the derring do and naval adventure on display in the novels, both of which are considerable, the thrust of the Hornblower novels so far seems to be in painting a pen portrait of a deeply insecure and unconfident captain, who cuts himself off from his crew and officers in order to conceal his doubts and perceived flaws, and whose personal life on shore is tortured by self-imposed duty to an unloved wife. Hornblower is quite the tortured human being, which is one of the main differences from his space-faring successor James T Kirk, but not from his naval fiction descendant Jack Aubrey. Oh, Horatio, you do have a knack for confusion on land, don't you? And falling in love with a noble lady, too? You dopey idiot, you.
It was surprising to find, on this first official reading, just how fresh these novels were. Yes, 'Flying Colours' did drag a little, but that may just have been because it was the last of three read in a very short time. That old world is captured very well, and with as much accuracy of detail as would have been possible. Forester seems to have had a fascination with historical fiction, and life on the water. 'The African Queen' was a staggering achievement indeed. Hornblower doesn't quite live up to that one-off.
As an extended story, as a trilogy, these three novels are slightly disjointed but it does work well. 'The Happy Return' is a great and fresh maritime adventure, 'A Ship Of The Line' is a fine war story with a surprising ending, and 'Flying Colours' is an extended prison escape story, with a very sudden ending. It's a good trilogy. Well done, CS Forester. I should never have avoided you for so long. It was the ligatures that did it.