Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Set Sail

I was a big fan of Peter Weir's 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. So, a couple years ago, when I happened upon one of the books on which it was based in the bargain bin at Borders for $2.99, I snatched it up. It's taken me quite a while to finally pick it up and dive in, but I finally finished it yesterday, and found it an enjoyable, if not occasionally frustrating, read.

The Far Side of the World is actually the 10th in author Patrick O'Brian's series of 20 novels detailing the exploits of British naval captain Jack Aubrey and his confidant and ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturian. Those who have seen the Weir film (which starred Russell Crowe as Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Maturian) will find much familiar here, with much of the overall plot structure of the film being lifted from this book. However, the differences are numerous and prevalent enough that there is still a great sense of surprise and drama for one who has seen the movie. Set in the War of 1812, the book finds Aubrey's ship, HMS Surprise, assigned to track down and capture an American ship, the Norfolk, that has been attacking and capturing British whalers in the south seas. Their journey takes them around Cape Horn, through external storms and internal struggle, as they seek their prize.

Perhaps the best way for me to describe O'Brian's writing style is to call him a period Tom Clancy. Anyone who has read Clancy knows that he'll usually spend a great deal of time (often 100 pages or more) offering detail into his setting and characters before getting significantly into the plot. O'Brian operates much the same way, providing enough details to make one feel like they've spent a tour or two at sea with the King's navy. Just about the time that the detail begins to feel tiresome, the novel takes off, and in retrospect the detail is worth the time, with the subsequent drama feeling incredibly immersive. The book had segments that gripped me tremendously, but it also had lulls that tempted me to put it down. I won't spoil the ending, since it will be new even to fans of the movie, but it felt abrupt and ultimately unsatisfying. I'm sure book 11 likely picks up where it leaves off, but I'm not sure I'll ever pick it up to find out. For those who love historical fiction, you'll love O'Brian, if you haven't discovered him already. The average reader will find an enjoyable ride here, I think, but not a great one.

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