"Rites of Passage", the first of this trilogy, is a stunning stand-alone book. That this compelling story unfolds via an unreliable narrator's enthusiastic and erratic journal is the author's masterstroke, an extended literary feat brilliantly executed.
Edmund Talbot is priviledged by class and education, and yet utterly hidebound socially. His arrogant sense of superiority leads him to flout ship's rules immediately and to get in the way at every stage of the voyage. It is a deft balancing act to let us laugh at his clumsiness, hypocrisy and snobbishness, yet still retain some sympathetic feeling for him. Golding manages this. Edmund is young, after all. He will learn!
There is wonderful humour in Rites of Passage, (the seduction of Zenobia being a standout scene), and there is great pathos too, most obviously in the plight of poor Reverend Colley. This book is an English classic, no question.
Golding's admits in his excelllent introduction that the sequels ("Close Quarters" and "Fire Down Below") were not planned from the outset, but that he felt there was more to discover about Edmund and his co-travellers, so allowed his imagination to extend the full length of the voyage. How marvellous for us that he did so!
Read on their own, books 2 and 3 would possess less of the beautiful structural arch of the first (a fact cunningly acknowledged by our unreliable narrator midway through Close Quarters!) However, read right through, they gather momentum, transforming into a terrific, page-turning sea adventure. Gradually the pretense of an interrupted journal narrative gives way to a more suitable novelistic treatment. By the end, Edmund has emerged as quite the hero (though still somewhat accident-prone!) More importantly, he has gained some much-needed self-awareness along the way.
Through all three books, fascinating explanations of nautical terminology and ship structure are smoothly interwoven with the human trials and tribulations. In fact, by the final installment, the ship itself has almost become the central character.
Very well-researched, and very well written indeed. I couldn't recommend this trilogy more highly.