First confession--I say the series, but I haven't read nearly all of them. Only the first. But what a first! My husband loves these seafaring novels, and though I did enjoy the movie, I've never gotten too into the naval thing. Even watching the entire Horatio Hornblower series (which, again, enjoyed) did not spark an interest in reading one of the many series out there chronicling the lives and careers of fictional naval superstars.
Patrick O'Brian is changing that for me. After skimming a couple of other age of sail novels and finding the writing dull and lacking (or, uh, maybe I just don't like riggings and masts enough), O'Brian had me from the first page. He has an elegant, perfectly turned voice that immediately evokes the period about which he writes. Beyond that, the characters are envisioned by the reader and living on the page within paragraphs. The opening ought, from popular modern writing advice's perspective, be dull. Aubrey, our intrepid naval officer, attends a concert. His exuberent mannerisms while enjoying the music annoy his neighbor, Dr. Maturin.
That's it. For a couple pages. What sort of hook is that, you may ask? You couldn't get that published today, you might say. Stuff and nonesense, say I. It's all in the writing. Within phrases, a vivid scene is playing in your mind, complete with strains of music floating over the characters you have just met. You know that there's more to each of these men, that their personalities are simmering with interest below their starched and pressed surfaces.
We're enchanted, before our Aubrey has even set foot on his ship.
It's true, the books move somewhat slowly. But for someone who likes action and literary work, it's a perfect blend. Not to sound snobbish (and I don't mean to) but these are in many ways a thinking person's books. O'Brian sneaks in inside jokes, but you have to have some knowledge to see the humour, making them amusing in different places depending on a person's background. One exchange provoked me to laughter as my confused husband looked on. "What's funny in the first twenty pages?" he asked. "Plenty," said I, only the joke was in French and thus only made sense if you happen to know French swear words. Hilarity.
So, in short, a rousing round of applause for Mr. O'Brian. These are not books, mind you, to devour, and I don't imagine I'll tear through the series. But I will savour them, one book at a time.