With his movie, “Master and Commander”, director Peter Weir has successfully managed to do what no one else has: get me to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels or as fans call them, the “Aubreyad”. I had known that the O’Brian novels were popular with those who liked historical sea dramas, but I was put off from reading them by their reputation. They were difficult to get into and, honestly, how interesting could a historical sea drama possibly be anyway? Historical fiction has many ways to go wrong–the author often gets too wrapped up in period detail, the action drags, or the series morphs into some kind of soap opera.
I had intended to just pick up one of the books, grit my teeth, and plow painfully through it. But after the first couple of pages, I found that I couldn’t put it down and–even more shockingly–that I wanted to read the other books in the series.
Some of the criticism of the O’Brian novels is very well founded. Patrick O’Brian writes in a 19th rather than a 20th century style. The plots of the books don’t follow the classic crisis-denouement pattern of most novels. Instead the books read more as a series of incidents and often end cliff hanger-fashion making each novel more like a chapter in a very long saga than a stand-alone book. Important action occurs off-stage and the reader has to learn about them second-hand from the characters’ recapitulation of the event.
That being said, the novels are ripping good yarns with plenty of sea battles and intrigue. Arnorians take note: the Antarctic regions get mentioned and “Desolation Island” is partly set in Antarctica. Although not generally comic, O’Brian pokes gentle fun at his characters from time to time and I found myself laughing out loud in places. At one point in “Treason’s Harbour“, for example, he describes the intention of the officers to call upon the newly-installed high muckety-muck in full dress uniform and “astonish him with their combined beauty”. The naval jargon isn’t that pronounced, but I do recommend that fellow “sea-readers” watch “Master and Commander: Far Side of the World” first so that they will have some idea of what is being described in the books.