Sunday, November 11, 2007

Avast, Ye Dogs!

Watoosa and I have both recently developed a taste for stories set in the Age of Fighting Sail. Our appetite was whetted by the film adaptation of the novels of Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and the excellent A&E adaptations of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. Watoosa read the first Hornblower novel, Beat to Quarters, insisted that I read it immediately, and then we were hooked.

I began listening to audiobook versions of the O'Brian novels this summer on my commute to school. I had read the second one, Post Captain, several years ago, but I have decided that it's not good to start with it. I was surprised that so much of the story took place on land as the characters developed romantic attachments. It felt like a Jane Austen novel, which (according my then-benighted view of that author and genre) was a strike against it. I later discovered that such was O'Brian's explicit intent, as he wanted to pay homage to Austen.

It's made a big difference to start with the first novel, Master and Commander (the film is actually a composite of several of the novels). It starts out a bit slow, and I think it's harder to appreciate O'Brian's writing in audio form, but I was soon engrossed by it. I liked Post Captain much better this time, too. Last week, I finished the third book, H. M. S. Surprise, and it's my favorite so far.

The fans of these books argue over which series is greater, but I like them both, although for different reasons. Forester's books are more streamlined and focused on the action (although not at the expense of character development). As a result, they're a bit more exciting and harder to pull yourself away from. O'Brian also knows a thing or two about describing vividly the terror and exhilaration of battle. But he's more inclined to take his time getting the narrative under way, more interested in exploring the world of his characters.

Both use liberal amounts of seafaring jargon. It can seem daunting to some readers, but even if you simply read past the lingo, you can follow what's important about any given scene (the effect is similar to the techno-babble in Star Trek). However, one nice thing about O'Brian's books is that the character Stephen Maturin is a complete landlubber; the Navy and its language and traditions are completely foreign to him. That gives O'Brian a chance to explain the details of life in the Royal Navy via the words of his characters, as they point things out to Stephen. It also lets him inject comical moments into the narrative as Maturin commits faux-pas and makes wry observations on the absurdities of the world he's entered.

I can't recommend these books enough. Get them, read them, love them. And if they (ahem) float your boat, you'll want to check out this list I recently found: 101 Crackerjack Sea Books.
They treat series of books as a single entry, so the Aubrey/Maturin series is #4, and Hornblower is #9. I've read a handful of others on the list, and pretty much enjoyed them all (although I had to give up on Robinson Crusoe).

One of most enjoyable reads I've had in years is #77: George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates. It's full of swordplay, daring escapes, and battle, but it's also hilarious. Watoosa and I both snickered and guffawed while reading it. If you like pirates, British humor, historical fiction, or just a good ripping yarn, you won't be disappointed.

And ye may lay to that.

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