Thursday, 20 September 2007

Review: "HMS Surprise" by Patrick O'Brien

I actually read this months ago, but had apparently left the draft lying around unpublished...

My friend Sean Boles and another online friend with whom I play chess got me interested in Patrick O'Brien's series of novels involving the characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Although I have to admit that I don't consume the Aubrey-Maturin novels as regularly or with the same gusto as other books and authors I follow, I enjoyed "Surprise" quite a bit, just as I enjoyed the previous two in the series ("Master and Command", and "Post-Captain").

I will again avoid spoiling the work for anyone who hasn't read it by describing particular details. The serial nature of the work makes it especially important to encounter the events in sequence. Instead, I will focus on the qualities of the writing that I find particularly appealing.

I won't presume to be able to do better justice to the period authenticity or O'Brien's ability to portray the seagoing life, many other reviewers have commented on this, including the afterward in the particular edition of "Surprise" I picked up, which was written by Charlton Heston. (As an aside, I wonder about his other reading tastes, in particular whether he read "I am Legend" before being presented with the script of and agreeing to portray the lead role in "Omega Man").

What I admire so much about the series is O'Brien's ability to start with truly excellent characters and to continually give us a more intimate understanding of their lives, their growth, their interactions with each other. He also has a fine sense of detail, narrative, pacing, and is on the whole a great writer in every sense.

Reading this work, I can't help but think of "Moby Dick", "Middle Passage", and any number of sea-going works (sadly few of which I've read). The Aubrey-Maturin series is written for a relatively modern ear, making it easier to parse than Melville. However, far from diluting the spirit of the age he describes, O'Brien's writing is believably rooted in the time and culture he describes, and does not engage in obvious revisionism by inserting overly modern characters and situations.

I look forward to continuing to read the series, and would love to hear from others who enjoy the series.

1 comment:

tmt said...

Hello Tony, I came across your comments on O'Brien quite by accident. I urge you to read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series if you haven't already done so. If you take a look at my latest book ("Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York" -- you will see ways in which an artist such as O'Brien can influence the construction of a work of history based entirely on manuscript sources. Although a novelist, O'Brien's work is steeped in archival research. I wish you well on your O'Brien adventure, TMT