Not to stretch a naval metaphor, but I’ve been in a reading doldrums. Nothing satisfies. At these times I fall back on one of two tried-and-true authors: Terry Pratchett or Patrick O’Brian. Pratchett pops up pretty regularly on Blogging for a Good Book, but I am amazed to see that we have never written about O’Brian, whose 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series fills an entire library shelf.
Set in the world of the royal navy during the Napoleonic wars, O’Brian’s novels are first and foremost the portrait of a lifelong friendship between Jack Aubrey, affable and resolute ship’s captain, and Stephen Maturin, surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent. The series pretty easily finds its audience of men (and women) who are interested in age-of-sail adventures on the high seas; I’m not sure it always finds its audience of women (and men) who enjoy Jane Austen’s prose style, well-crafted sentences and characters, or the complications of Regency-era manners.
The New York Times may have called them “the best historical novels ever written,” but I avoided this series for years based solely on the infernal diagram of sails that opens every volume. No one wants to have to memorize sailing terminology just to get into a good story. Even as I began to be won over by O’Brian’s carefully-chosen words and dry humor, I simply refused to care which sail was a spritsail.
Fortunately, there is so much more than sails to care about as you turn the pages: there are also debauched sloths. Battles, mutinies, French prisons, typhoons, desert islands, music, birds, rich vocabulary, and a whole Dickensian roster of colorful secondary characters. There is indeed a lot of naval jargon, but the reader is not beat about the head with it, or if he is, he has a sympathetic ally in his ignorance in the person of Stephen Maturin. Stephen is also a landlubber, an outsider looking in to the regimented world of the royal navy, and he does not care any more about how many masts a ship has than I did.
Jack is famously lucky at sea, a skilled, courageous ship’s captain who will take, burn, and destroy the enemy at every opportunity, while on land, he is easy prey for speculators or a pretty face. Stephen is an Irish-Catalan physician with a passion for natural philosophy, and is forever cluttering Jack’s ship with beetles, wombats, and diving bells. If you cross him, he will fleece you at cards. If you double-cross him, he will find you, he will shoot you, and then he will dissect you. Their world of naval battles and subversive intelligence work occasionally collides with the domestic sphere and the polite drawing rooms of Jane Austen, usually with disastrous results, and then they are back to sea to escape debt, lawsuits, wives, sweethearts, and mothers-in-law.
And if you do begin to care about spritsails, there are many fine books to help you explore Aubrey and Maturin’s world, whether you’re interested in the vocabulary, the geography, the ships, or even, heaven help you, the food (probably the only cookbook in the library with a recipe for rats in onion sauce).
Check the WRL catalog for Master and Commander.
Or try the audiobooks. Patrick Tull and Simon Vance are both fantastic readers.