This book consists of a series of loosely linked stories that cover the time between when Horatio Hornblower goes aboard a naval vessel for the first time, at the age of seventeen, and when he is promoted to lieutenant a few years later. They're mostly focused on elucidating the basis of his later character and actions. He has a few moments of brilliance here, and commits a number of blunders. By complete inexperience he lets the first prize he's given command of sink, which gives him a chance to demonstrate his tendancy to be far more critical of himself than anyone else is, and to have an extremely developed (perhaps overdeveloped) sense of honor. Throughout this series, Hornblower was always prone to anxiety and self-doubt, but there are better reasons for it when he really doesn't know much yet. He also commits several acts of wild recklessness, either carried away by anger or overcompensating for fear, and is confronted with their possible consequences. But he never loses his intelligence for long, and manages to think his way out of problems he gets himself into -- he's depicted as having elements of emotionality and detachment, impulsiveness and planning, that aren't well integrated yet. The author teaches his protagonist a number of lessons about war, the workings of the navy, the necessity of compassion, and so forth. There's one story in which Hornblower doesn't do anything, but is simply a witness to events that make a deep impression on him.