Book: The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brian

Splendid book in splendid historical-fiction series

Patrick O'Brian
The Wine-Dark Sea
W. W. Norton, 1993
ISBN: 0-393-03558-1
261 pages

The Wine-Dark Sea is the sixteenth book in a twenty-book series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian. They're about the nineteenth-century British sea captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan doctor, naturalist, and secret agent for the British crown. (There's also a twenty-first which was left unfinished at the author's death but which has been published.) The whole series is splendid and it's an astonishing and detailed work of historical fiction.

Really, little needs to be said here. If you're new to the series and historical novels about the nineteenth-century British navy sound at all interesting, start at the beginning. A buddy points out to me that the books' style is closer to the style of the time they're set in than to contemporary writing. For example:

    His present undertaking, resumed after a long interruption
    caused by the traitorous passing of information from London
    to Madrid, gave him the greatest satisfaction, for its success
    would not only weaken the two oppressors but it would also
    cause extreme anger and frustration in a particular
    department of French intelligence that was trying to bring
    about the same result, though with the difference that the
    independent South American governments should feel loving
    and strategically valuable gratitude towards Paris rather than
    London. (p. 2)

I've read so much prose like that over the years that it hardly registers as unusual to me. The same may not be true for everyone.

If you've read the previous fifteen books, I can assure you that you won't be disappointed with this one. But that's pretty obvious. If Mr O'Brian were going to put a foot badly wrong, he'd have done so before getting this far.

As the book begins, Captain Aubrey is commanding Surprise which is now a privateer or letter-of-marque in service to the British crown. They're cracking along across the Pacific, chasing an American privateer, the Franklin. Captain Aubrey has hopes of taking the ship as a prize and selling it in South America. And Dr Maturin has some business in Peru.

In contrast to the previous book, there's plenty of sea-going drama: gun-battles, wind, and weather. And the men of the Surprise get to see an unusual event at sea early in the book.

Mr O'Brian maintains the high standard he has set.

I am no sort of sailor and still less a nineteenth-century British one, but I suspect that "mess kids" (p. 10) should have been "mess kits".

Posted: Mon - July 23, 2007 at 08:25 PM   Main   Category: