Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series is one of my favourites of all time. Despite initially not having much of a clue what the many, different sailing terms meant, somewhere in the first instalment I fell hook, line and sinker for the characters – particularly for the delightfully grumpy Stephen Maturin – and since then, whenever times have got tough and I need a pick-me-up, I treat myself to a little holiday in their company. As O’Brian is deceased and the series numbers twenty books, I’ve been making sure that I don’t binge on them so that I’ll know that I have a new adventure with them waiting for me each year for the foreseeable future (and yes, I realise that this is rather sad of me). Now halfway through the series, the previously confusing sailing terms now seem like second nature, and I’m as in love as I ever was with the rest of the writing.
In The Far Side of The World, the wars with the French in which our characters were introduced have long since ended and, instead, we’re now at war with America. Aubrey, in command of HMS Surprise – a ship that’s already seen him through more than a few scrapes – is given the mission of pursuing an American ship, the Norfolk, and protecting British whalers in the Pacific from her depradations. On her way to intercepting the Americans, the Surprises will face onboard adultery, murder-suicides, the loss of its surgeon and captain overboard (and their subsequent ‘rescue’ by a boat of women native to the area, intent on castrating them), massive storms, sharks and, finally, a tense stand-off on a deserted island under the terms of a dubious peace. Meanwhile, Stephen makes a potentially dangerous error in judgement, before almost getting his skull sawn open by the ship’s parson after knocking himself into a coma on the ship’s guns.
The writing on display is as wonderful as ever, and I love how O’Brian depicts the various relationships onboard (even when they’re unsavoury, which they often are). And even though he’s now running out of real life events to exploit – as per his admission at the start of this book – his ways around that, often centring on Stephen’s passion for naturalism and the crew’s handling of the ship itself in the face of Mother Nature’s fury, delights me as much as his splendid sea battles did.
I can’t recommend this series highly enough – even for those, like me, who prefer to stay on dry land and wouldn’t know a topsail from a taffrail.