October 21, 2005, marked the 200th anniversary of the great naval battle of Trafalgar, an engagement in which Admiral Nelson and the British fleet ended Napoleon’s dream of invading England by crushing the French and Spanish fleets off the southwest coast of Spain, even as Nelson himself lay dying from a sniper’s bullet. In Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar (HarperCollins), Adam Nicolson argues that the final outcome was never in doubt: the British fleet, commanded by Horatio Nelson on board the Victory, would have defeated the combined naval forces of Spain and France no matter where or when they’d met. Nelson was victorious primarily because “he was able... to summon a scale of aggression from his fleets that [drew] on the deepest levels of common consciousness among his men.” The British fleet was simply more efficient at the necessary skill of slaughter, this being the determining factor in naval warfare of the early nineteenth century. The final body count was ten to one in favour of the British: 650 dead on the British side, against “6500 or so” of the enemy. Nicolson takes the reader methodically through the events of that bloody day two centuries ago, beginning with the lookouts’ first sighting of the enemy at 5:50 in the morning, a light breeze carrying the enormous triple-decker ships-of-the-line slowly toward the long-sought engagement in which the matter would be decided; through the carnage of battle at close quarters; and ending with de-masted ships drifting off a lee shore as a storm approaches, their decks a horrific scene of “blood and mangled remains with which every part was covered.” Maps included in the book show the coastline, the prevailing winds and the disposition of the fleets at various times. In each chapter Nicolson digresses at length from the day’s events to construct a wonderfully detailed social backdrop for the battle, exploring the notion of honour in the British imagination, the financial costs of maintaining a large naval force and the material costs of constructing the massive ships-of-the-line.