I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately, so I have 28 novels to review! All but one are from series of novels, so that’s not quite as daunting as it sounds. Still, I’ll split this into two posts to make it manageable.
The Aubrey/Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian
A lot of ink has been spilled about these books, of which O’Brian completed twenty before his death in 2000. They’ve been described as the best historical novels ever written, they’ve been turned into a (slightly mixed-up, plot-wise, but nonetheless entertaining) movie. This was my second time through them and I devoured them in the space of a few weeks.
If you haven’t read them, you’re missing out on something special. I probably couldn’t recommend them to non-native speakers of English, mostly because they’re written in language that more resembles Dickens or Austen than anything you would find from other contemporary novelists. The social mores of the characters are of a piece with the language and can be quite confusing if you’re not a little familiar with Georgian society. One of the best explanations for the books that I’ve seen is that one should imagine that O’Brian was writing for the consumption of people of the time that he was writing about – no-one of that era would mistake what was meant by “going out” or be led astray by the complexities of the financial negotiations surrounding marriage among the gentry of the time. For us, reading now, it’s a little trickier, but O’Brian does provide clues, and with a little familiarisation, it’s not hard to follow what’s going. And the rewards are very great.
To sum the books up in one sentence: They’re a sideways view of the history of the Napoleonic Wars, seen from the viewpoint of a Royal Navy captain and his physician friend, who also happens to be a spy for the British. The naval detail is great, made even more astonishing by the fact the O’Brian was not himself a nautical man, but the greatest moments in the books are often the times away from the action. The friendship between Jack Aubrey (gullible fool by land, demi-godlike by sea) and Stephen Maturin (physician, naturalist, spy) is portrayed in a degree of beautiful and subtle detail that I think I’ve only seen in one other novel (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon).
One example: Aubrey and Maturin both have a love for music (Aubrey plays the violin, Maturin the cello) and they play together whenever they can when they’re at sea. Throughout the books, there’s little mention made of their relative levels of skill, and one might be led to think that they’re quite well-matched. But then, in something like book 15 out of the twenty, they are on land, staying at Aubrey’s estate. Neither of them can sleep and Maturin is awake in his room. He hears Aubrey playing his violin in the summerhouse in the garden below, and he listens and listens, amazed at the skill of his friend, so far beyond his own that he would be embarrassed to play with Jack. For all this time, Aubrey has been holding himself back, never speaking a word, constraining himself so that they might play together in fellowship and friendship. “He is the secret man of the world,” says Maturin to himself.
There are some other beautiful moments: the flowering of Maturin’s (possibly autistic, or perhaps affected by foetal alcohol syndrome) daughter and her gentle and lovely friendship with Padeen, Maturin’s Irish assistant, is really moving; the moment where Aubrey, victim of a financial fraud perpetrated by political rivals and exacerbated by his Radical father, stands before a crowd in the stocks of the City of London and, instead of being pelted with rotten fruit and stones, is cheered by the gathered sailors and officers, who have come from all the ships in the Pool of London to honour him, is just breathtaking.
O’Brian really could write, and the scope of his achievement with these books is quite astonishing. The total page count of the series is something like 7000-or-so pages. That sounds a lot, and although there is inevitably some variation in quality over the course of the books, it’s hard to imagine how one could become so deeply immersed in the lives and times of the characters without that huge scope.
The Eternal Sky by Elizabeth Bear
Fantasy trilogy set in something like an alternative Asia with: steppe-dwelling Mongol-like peoples (horses, lots of horses), something a little like the Ottoman Empire, a mountain kingdom that sounds like Nepal or perhaps Bhutan, some really weird cosmology (“as above, so below”), talking tiger-people, religious extremists with access to some nasty nasty magic, “aliens as gods”/“gods as aliens”/“who knows what the hell is going on” (pick one – I settled on #3), and a bunch of other stuff I’m probably forgetting (I read these over a couple of days when I was sick and weak with a fever, so I might not have been following everything too clearly).
That laundry list description might sound a little trashy, but these are very much not trashy. There are some really solid characters. The three that shone for me were three women, one a magician from the mountain kingdom, one a “failed” magician from the same place (“failed” isn’t really the right word for someone who gets to talk to dragons), and one who starts out as a young woman in one of the horse tribes, becomes pregnant by the nominal “hero” (a sort of Genghis Khan figure, though written with a very light touch) and then becomes the “Queen of Ruins”. (That gives some insight into the weird cosmology: basically, the sky in this world changes to reflect the controlling temporal power below. The sky of the Queen of Ruins is, well, ruinous…)
Very entertaining and well worth a read, even if the set piece battle at the end does feels a little too tidy. There are lots of unexplained places in the rest of the books that give real texture to the world, and it would have been nice to carry some of that ambiguity and mystery along in the plot too. Still, that’s a minor criticism!