There are a lot of things to recommend David Feintuch's four Nicholas Seafort novels (there is a fifth novel out featuring the character's son, but it is set much later, and the cycle is clearly complete with the four books), so I tend to be a little forgiving of the series's considerable flaws. The first novel in particular, Midshipman's Hope, is very roughly written in places, but it is excellent conceptually and well plotted. By the fourth book, Fisherman's Hope, Feintuch's control of his writing has improved dramatically.
The series is a very conscious tribute to C. S. Forester's masterful Horatio Hornblower novels, and by and large Feintuch manages to pull it off. Like Hornblower, Nicholas Seafort is a hero so inwardly tortured that all of his outward success is meaningless to him; in a sense, his heroism and devotion to duty are the vehicles for his own suffering. The central conflict of the series is between the character's duty to God and his duty to the navy, and the violation of either one--inevitable over the course of his career--puts his soul at peril. Religion is seldom treated with the complexity it deserves in genre fiction; too often religion is just a source of evil priests or fanatical killers. While Feintuch's work lacks the depth of Walter Miller Jr., it treats religion as a serious and crucial facet of the characters' lives, sometimes positive, sometimes negative--but either way a factor in how characters think of themselves and the people around them.
I may as well mention the flaws of the series first, since they can be glaring and distracting at times, and I intend to spend the rest of the review saying nice things about the books. Three things jump out at readers immediately in the first book, problems that (by and large) gradually diminish over the course of the series.
Perhaps this last point needs a bit of background explanation. The world of the future is dominated by the United Nations, which is now a quasi-religious organization. Attempts at universal education have been abandoned, as well as many urban areas--which are now controlled by gang cultures. There are tremendous economic and social divisions between the educated and the uneducated. Although faster than light travel exists, round-trip voyages between Earth and its colonies still take several years. The only interstellar craft are UN military ships. Because of the length and hardship involved in space voyages, the military has absolute power over all passengers and cargo in space.
Because enlisted personnel are drawn from the ranks of the uneducated, the navy has instituted a brutal system of punishments based on, I suppose, Feintuch's interpretation of eighteenth century naval fiction. The junior officers--who begin their naval careers in their young teens--are not immune from this system. The practical upshot of all this seems to be that the midshipmen get spanked a lot.
In Midshipman's Hope, Nicholas Seafort is a seventeen-year-old midshipman on the UNS Hibernia. A series of disasters leave him as the senior line officer alive on board the ship. Naval regulations demand that he assume complete control, although he--along with most of the ship's passengers and crew--does not feel that he is qualified for the role. Every decision which follows is magnified by Seafort's age and inexperience--he has to fight to enforce orders that would be followed unquestioningly from an older officer as the troubled voyage continues. Seafort, the product of a rigid (basically Calvinist) upbringing, cannot tolerate any less than perfection from himself, and is tortured when his perceived failures cost the lives of the men around him. Although the people around him come to see his exceptional abilities as a commanding officer, he is able to focus only on his failures, and the measure of peace he gains at the end of the novel will clearly not last for long.
Midshipman's Hope is a very tightly plotted novel, particularly for a first novel. The pressure remains heavy throughout, and the frequent twists and turns are believable and nicely set up. Feintuch has a nice touch with the male characters and younger characters, and he's never afraid to kill off sympathetic characters if it's necessary to his story. The series is told entirely in the first person (for reasons which become clear at the end of Fisherman's Hope), but as the series gets going, Feintuch has enough of a feel for his primary character that we are able to see not only Seafort's self-torture, but also the things Seafort is incapable of seeing or understanding: the love and respect of the officers who serve under him.
Challenger's Hope tells the story of Nicholas Seafort's second voyage, in which he is forced into the decision that--in his own mind--irretrievably damns his soul. After tragedy befalls his wife and child (another echo of C. S. Forester), in the midst of an interstellar war against--I am not making this up--creatures that look like space-goldfish, Seafort is abandoned on a crippled ship by a cowardly admiral, along with a shipload of troublesome passengers and crewmen the admiral was anxious to be rid of. Seafort is must overcome his own sense of hopelessness, and then mold the unwilling castaways into a crew capable of fighting to survive, however hopeless their predicament may look. While the writing in Challenger's Hope is stronger than the first book in the series, the story itself is a little less strong; the book is very much a long setup for the unwinnable dilemma between duty and honor which Seafort must face, and which he cannot possibly come through intact.
In Prisoner's Hope, a physically and emotionally scarred Seafort finds himself stranded as the ranking naval officer on a crumbling colony under siege--where many of the people he is assigned to protect are trying to kill him. At the same time, he suffers through a series of physical and emotional disasters: he is badly injured twice; he is denied a ship because of his emotional state; one of his few friends loses his memory, while another refuses to speak to him; his second wife betrays him and later is viciously assaulted, at least partially because of his own anger and negligence. Despite all of these things, and despite his sense that he has already lost all honor, Seafort must hold himself together and do all he can to save the colony--his devotion to duty is the only thing he has left. But gradually he comes to realize that the only possible hope of saving the colony lies through the greatest betrayal of all: he must violate the most fundamental part of the oath he has sworn to the UN.
Fisherman's Hope is a rarity in the genre: a novel about a hero after his greatest moments have passed. Seafort is a tremendous heroic figure to humanity at large, but internally he has betrayed everything he was raised to believe in. He has been robbed of the chance to die heroically by his closest friend's sacrifice--leaving him with the blood of yet another friend on his conscience. The navy, anxious to retain its troubled hero, appoints him commandant of the Naval Academy, which will allow him to stay close to his increasingly distant wife and the continuing medical care she needs. At the academy, despite the presence of endless interfering politicians, Seafort begins to find, if not peace, at least a measure of accommodation with his own sins. But when the aliens attack the solar system in force and overwhelm the UN's naval squadrons, only Seafort knows how to overcome them. And his solution involves betraying the very people who trust him the most, and to whom he owes what little redemption he has gained.
The last novel of the Seafort cycle (the fifth book is related, but not directly in the cycle), is an extraordinary book in some ways. By Fisherman's Hope , Feintuch has gained a much greater degree of subtlety, as well as greater control over his characters. Seafort is tortured, but never unsympathetic or self-pitying. The same factors that drive him to greatness also drive his inner destruction. The bittersweet ending successfully brings the cycle to a close without destroying the character utterly, but also without introducing an artificially happy close to a story that revolves around duty, pain, and suffering.
I really enjoyed this series,
more than most reviewers, I suspect. It had an odd pedigree: Feintuch came
to the field older than most writers start, and with the help of book doctor
Ardath Mayhar at least on the first book. Warner found themselves without
a traditional lead title on the month the book was scheduled to be published,
and chose the risky strategy of spending extra money pushing an unknown
author's book instead, giving Feintuch an expensive cover and a nice publicity
push that some other writers resented. He had interesting stories to tell
and characters to explore; I'm sorry I never got to know him (despite my
feelings about the spankings in his books). He died early in the summer