Started: 16 Oct. 2012
Finished: 26 Oct. 2012
You do know Patrick O'Brian don't you? The pull quote on the cover reads "The best historical novels ever written". I suppose Hillary Mantel might quibble, but the quote dates from long before Wolf Hall or even Sandra Gulland's The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, so we can allow The New York Times to be a little more definitive than later writers might choose to be.
This is book 2 of a 20 book series set during the Napoleonic Wars. They're widely praised as the best naval adventures ever written, not the least because although our hero Jack Aubrey and his physician friend Stephen Maturin are entirely fictional, every battle is based on a real encounter as recorded in British naval records. And the battles are thrilling, even if your average reader can't understand the fine points of sailing and all the many details of ship's rigging that you encounter in a blow by blow account of battle.
But that's not what makes the books great. You watch Jack being forced to dodge tipstaffs to prevent being thrown into debtor's prison. You ride beside Stephen and Jack as they choose to overnight at an inn rather than travel roads plagued by out of work soldiers who've turned to highway robbery. You read the letters rapidly dictated by a naval official resisting entreaties for ship assignments or promotions made by various nobles for their relatives and proteges.
O'Brian published the Aubrey and Maturin novels in the 1970s and 80s, but he makes you feel that he lived at the turn of the 19th century. And that he's bringing you along for the ride.