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What Is Naval Fiction?

By Daphne Mallory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Naval fiction can be considered a sub-genre of military fiction. Naval stories are generally focused on one particular ship in a nation’s navy, with its captain or crew members being the main characters. The plots in these novels typically involve the actions of the crew on board a ship as they participate in real historical battles or fictionalized ones. The crew often prevails against overwhelming odds because of the ingenuity of the ship’s captain. The majority of naval fiction is divided between two time periods: the so-called age of sail from the 1500s to the mid-1800s and the modern era, which encompasses later ships powered by steam, oil, or nuclear power.

Naval fiction set in the age of sail details life on a wooden naval ship powered by sails. Authors often provide detailed accounts of what life was like on board these ships, describing everything from bouts of scurvy to the types of weaponry the ships carried. The historical information on the ships is often so detailed that some literary critics consider the ships to be extra characters in the books. A common storyline of the genre includes having the ship damaged while far from home and the crew having to repair the ship with primitive tools before the crew can take part in the novel’s final battle. Most naval fiction from the age of sail is based on ships from European nations that had established a global naval presence in the 18th century, including Britain and Spain.

Owing to technologies in the modern era, naval fiction set in this period has different features than that set in the age of sail. Books are focused more on military conflicts and weaponry and less on character development. These novels are often filled with technical details about the main characters’ ship and the ships of the enemy nation they’re in conflict with. As both sides are often on equal footing when it comes to technology, the battles in modern era naval fiction are often decided by the ingenuity of the captain and crew. Modern era plots often contain a more global setting because of the range of ships, and geopolitics usually plays a role in the story arc. They also encompass a wider variety of ships, including aircraft carriers and submarines.

Author C.S. Forester is considered one of the pioneers of naval fiction because of his novels centered on the character Horatio Hornblower and his adventures in the 18th century British Royal Navy. Patrick O’Brian’s novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series are another example of books from the age of sail. These two authors are often considered the most popular storytellers of the genre. Tom Clancy, Stephen Coonts, and James Cobb are examples of authors who sometimes write naval fiction set in the modern era.

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