If you have read O'Brian's work, then you are probably addicted to him. To this group of readers, I offer reassurance: the master has turned another great performance. To the not yet addicted, I owe an explanation. This is the 18th novel in a series which has been called the best historical novels ever written. The two central characters, Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy officer, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, an Irish/Catalan physician, natural philosopher, and intelligence agent, roam the seas in search of the King's enemies. Aubrey's officers and men more often than not defeat these enemies in thrilling actions whose accounts, we are assured by the author, are perfectly accurate renditions of real battles in the Napoleonic wars. But there is far more than that. O'Brian places the reader in his world in much the same way one comes to know a foreign country by traveling there. You overhear a bit of conversation which conveys where the plot is going, rather than having it explained. The nautical vocabulary is used rather than defined, and soon enough, as with a foreign language, you begin to understand the difference between a cathead, catting the anchor, and a cat o' nine tails. And there is wit. Aubrey remarks of a Dalmation headland, Cape San Giorgio . . . Have you noticed how foreigners can never get English names quite right? With the dialogue doing most of the work, O'Brian's exposition can be jewel-like. Here he describes the arrival of a one-handed midshipman before an action: William Reade came up the side, his hook gleaming and with something of the look of a keen, intelligent dog that believes it may have heard someone taking down a fowling-piece. One of O'Brian's most intriguing talents is that of ellipse, of letting a fact of immense importance be dropped, almost casually, in the dialog of a minor character, or en passant in the past tense. He is capable of building the tension before a naval battle for a third of a book and then calling off the battle and he can do this without irritating the reader. Sadly, two of our veteran characters, members of the literary family, are killed off in this volume, and O'Brian spends no more than a dozen words on either death. It is told without a hint of sentiment but with a resonance that pervades the book. In the end, of course, it is the richness of O'Brian's characters which explain his abiding appeal. After 18 volumes, Jack and Stephen, their wives, their shipmates and enemies, become like members of our family. The constant repetition of their foibles and mannerisms, the total consistency of the great strains of their character, all seem to underline the essential truth of these works of fiction. If his work is the product of a formula, then it is a formula which works just like life. The constants are the people. It is the scene outside them that changes as the ship bowls along.
W. Foster is a sailor and attorney in Columbia, South Carolina.