Post Captain, by Patrick O'Brien

Post Captain is the second book in this famous series which I never got around to reading until this summer. Actually, I listened to it in the car, narrated by Patrick Tull. I found the first book, Master and Commander, rather slow going. It starts at a concert in Port Mahon, Minorca where Jack Aubrey gets so excited by the music that he beats time—not entirely accurately—to the consternation of the man sitting next to him, Stephen Maturin, a doctor of half-Irish, half-Catalan heritage.

Despite this inauspicious beginning the two become friends, and Jack invites Stephen to join his sloop, the Sophie, as ship surgeon. Stephen, who is in some financial difficulty, agrees. Thus they are launched on their adventures, protecting British vessels and tracking down French and Spanish ships during the Napleonic Wars.

Jack treats is all as a great adventure, coming off as a rather simple fellow most of the time. However, he shines in battle where he comes up with daring and ingenious ploys to outwit the enemy. Stephen's mind has a more serious cast. Interested in natural history, he collects and studies specimens during their travels and deplores not only the carnage of battle but also some facets of sailing life, such as the regular consumption of rum and the occasional flogging.

Much of the tedium of the first book for me lay in the long expositions on sailing craft, as Stephen is instructed by his kind crewmates. While I see how these sections might be fascinating to some, I know too little to be able to picture what was being described. The two characters speaking were looking at the ship's masts, sails, rigging, etc., so of course had no need to describe them to each other, leaving me somewhat at sea. Perhaps knowledge of such things as what a topgallant might look like is assumed, but more narrative description would have helped me. Anyway, I'm always more interested in the relationships between characters and the conflicts that arise between them, and there were enough of these to send me to this second book.

Post Captain starts during the Peace of Amiens when commanders and common seamen have been thrown out of work. Jack takes a house in the country, and he and Stephen become friendly with a nearby family that includes several young women. However, this Austen-like interlude is abruptly terminated when two reversals of fortune leave Jack not only bankrupt, but on the run lest he land in debtors' prison. While he and Stephen are in Europe, war breaks out again, catching them unaware and placing them in great danger isolated in enemy territory.

I liked this second book tremendously. The storylines related to the young women continue through the book while the relationship between the two men deepens and becomes more complex. And the battle scenes are stunning. O'Brien braids in sensory details—the taste of powder in the air, the booming of the guns—without diluting the suspense and excitement. I understand from O'Brien's introduction and Wikipedia that the author based these scenes on the real exploits of Lord Cochrane and other naval heroes. Writers steal people's stories all the time. For example, Faulkner frankly confessed that his stories were based on family tales and the shenanigans of his neighbors in Oxford.

In both these books I also enjoyed the interplay among the crew. Only a few emerge as individuals, but O'Brien manages to convey shifting tides of relationships between individuals and the crew as a whole in just the briefest of scenes. There are some promising—indeed tantalising—storylines here that I hope will be followed up in future books.

Writing a series like this gives a writer huge scope for developing his characters. I wonder how much O'Brien plotted out the series before he started. J. K. Rowling says that she had the out line for the whole Harry Potter series before she started writing. Other writers stumble into it, meaning to write only one book and ending up with many, such as Agatha Christie who famously bemoaned having stuck herself with a Belgian detective. These stories have the air of plunging ahead, the author discovering along with us what happens next, but that could just be good writing.

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