Runners Who Read

Who knew? A bunch of runners who enjoy reading and discussing what they read.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

RWR Book Review: Post Captain (Patrick O'Brian)

How many fans of historical fiction do we have? This is the second in Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey/Maturin” series of novels – actually more like one long novel in 21 parts -- set in the naval world of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s my fourth time through this series; I enjoy periodically sailing again with perhaps historical fiction’s most famous odd couple: “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a lusty, rough-and-tumble British naval officer, and his eccentric sidekick, ship’s surgeon, pioneer biologist and sometimes secret agent, Stephen Maturin. (I thought the recent movie based on two of the novels was surprisingly good.)

The Aubrey-Maturin Series

Many historical novels read more like costume parties than true historical fiction, but O’Brian is the real deal. What his work may be lacking in tight plotting is more than made up for by his great attention to historical detail and his talent for writing action. His dialogue sounds authentic to its time but immediate, never forced or stilted, and his books are bristling with real historical flavor – I feel I'm being wholly transported to the early 19th century, rather than reading a modern novel in 19th century dress.

O’Brian makes no allowances for those of us ignorant of staysails, jibs, spinnakers and the like: he knows his sailing as thoroughly as he knows his history, and he doesn’t pause for explanations. Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need to know anything about sailing yourself to enjoy the books; much can be picked up through context, and if you’re really interested the rest is available in several books like the one listed at the end of this post, A Sea of Words.

I have always admired O’Brian as a writer. His action scenes are absolutely thrilling page-turners, among the best of any novelist I’ve ever read; yet there is also plenty of psychological depth to the characters and their interactions. Even the most minor characters are fully drawn in a few choice phrases. And, simply put, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are two of the most three-dimensional people ever to be made up entirely out of someone’s head.

The Book: Post Captain

Post Captain is for the most part a leisurely-paced, loosely-plotted look at Aubrey and Maturin between voyages, walking unsteadily on land and dealing uncomfortably with frustrating romantic entanglements, naval career politics, and sudden changes in Jack’s financial fortunes. At times it reads more like a Jane Austen novel than an Aubrey/Maturin adventure, and events can seem to move at a snail’s pace. Yet the characters and the world they live in are so carefully and fully drawn that you can get comfortably lost in it. Two naval action set pieces – an attack on a French harbor and a chase after a Spanish treasure fleet – are as action-packed and thrilling as any O’Brian ever wrote. Surrounding those two scenes is a great deal of domestic drama, unusual for the series, that -- while engaging and revealing for those who are already familiar with the characters -- might seem tedious to those reading the series for the first time.

I’d recommend Post Captain to any committed Aubrey/Maturin fan, and the series as a whole to anyone who seeks out the best in historical fiction – perhaps the best place to start is the first book in the series, Master and Commander.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get another historical novelist with O’Brian's special blend: a passionate devotion to careful detail and equally strong flair for action. His love and deep knowledge of the vibrant and violent world of early 19th century Europe is clear in every page he ever wrote.

Master and Commander: Book 1 in the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian

A Sea of Words: A Companion and Lexicon to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian by Dean King

Looking forward to book reports (long or short) by others!

-- Ed Brickell


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