Patrick O'Brian's publisher is saying Blue at the Mizzen may be the last in his superb series of historical fiction, and we can only hope that is not so. Still, we have to admit that it could not last forever. After all, O'Brian is well into his eighties, and the subject matter the Napoleonic wars has, with this 20th novel, come finally to an end, with Napoleon safely on St. Helena and Aubrey and Maturin fomenting revolution in Chile and sailing the frigid seas off Cape Horn. Without the backdrop of the French wars, O'Brian's characters (assuming that he sticks to historical accuracy) would be about to enter two generations of peace. And while there is much peacefulness in this work, it relies on the electric excitement generated by the sudden appearance of an enemy on the horizon.

Perhaps, then, it is time to assess the whole series, of which this book is a worthy member. There is nothing unique in a series of genre fiction in which you could read any single book intelligibly or could view the whole series as a sustained narrative, nor in the addictive quality of this massive work. After all, people get addicted to genre writers from Danielle Steele to Zane Grey. What makes us want to give one of these books to every reading friend, to stay up all night with the latest installment, to reread the whole series in between new books, even to read the cookbook based on the series (anyone for soused pig face)? Well, you have to admire the manifest quality of O'Brian's work. His erudition, for example, extends to the natural history of mammals, insects, and birds, to the ethnography of more cultures than I can count, to astronomy and navigational mathematics, to vintages of 18th-century wines, to naval tactics and practices, and to the truths of the human heart. We grow to know these fictional characters and to admire their foibles and courage so much that they become old, valued friends. And here, I suppose, is the secret of O'Brian's art: that his genuine hard work at mastering and relating to us a body of arcane knowledge makes us trust him enough to listen to what he has to say about friendship, patriotism, courage, and love.

This is a work of genius, and in the face of its inevitable end, I can only think with pleasure at the now 20 volumes on my shelf. ¦ J.

W. Foster is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina, and an avid sailor and equestrian.

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