All the main characters, Aubrey and Maturin included, faded into the background of The Mauritius Command, becoming a kind of landscape upon which theAll the main characters, Aubrey and Maturin included, faded into the background of The Mauritius Command, becoming a kind of landscape upon which the drama of Lord Clonfert played out. His was the story that most captured my attention this time through.
Clonfert begins the tale as the captain of HMS Otter. He is a vain man. A handsome man who cuts a dashing figure in his finery. He has developed some bravery (after a shaky beginning to his career), is a "capital seaman" and has the loyalty of his men. He is also an unabashed liar when it comes to his accomplishments (even suggesting he was present at the killing of a unicorn, using a Narwhal tusk as his evidence), but his vanity quickly undermines his spirit when he's thrust into the shadow of his former shipmate, now commanding officer, Commodore Jack Aubrey.
Clonfert is eventually made Post-Captain by the man he sees as his nemesis and is given the frigate HMS Néréide as his command. He eventually loses his ship and half his face in a poorly executed action, and once he realizes that Jack Aubrey will again return him to command, after the Mauritius Campaign has reached its successful conclusion, he takes his own life in his convalescent bed.
It's not a tragic death. It's rather pathetic, actually. O'Brian's expression of Clonfert's fall, however, is touching and strikes at a truth I've witnessed amongst many of those who find themselves in competition with one another. Quite often, the successful person, the "bull" in an analogy of Stephen Maturin's, has no idea that the less successful person, the "frog" in the same analogy, envies him, hates him, or obsesses over him in any way. So the bull steps on the frog without ever noticing, and as Dr. Maturin suggests, "how can the bull be blamed ...." How, indeed?
I never want to be a frog, but I fear that there is a bit of that beast in me despite my desire. It is something for which I must be wary. I should probably be wary of being the bull too. Wariness may just be the most benevolent policy.
I just took a second listen to The Mauritius Command, and Simon Vance's performance held up very well. I know many adore Patrick Tull, and perhaps I would too if I ever had a chance to hear his work, but I have listened to four of the novels now (having read them all first) with Simon doing the narrating, and I feel like my brain has settled in on his rhythms. He's become the voice of these men for me. He's never been my favourite narrator of fiction (I most recently listened to his Dr. No, James Bond), but I have enjoyed his Egyptology readings. His voice just seems to suit the more historically driven tales. Maybe it is the pomposity he can achieve with his voice. I dunno. I do know I liked it, though. Again. ...more
WARNING: This review claims that historical novels are like porn movies, and I discuss porn throughout. Please avoid this review if porn offends you.WARNING: This review claims that historical novels are like porn movies, and I discuss porn throughout. Please avoid this review if porn offends you.
Historical novels are a bit like porn for me. I am always faintly ashamed to be a fan, I generally hide my taste for them, but I get off on what they have to offer.
There are high-end historical novels, like Aubrey-Maturin (the one series I am proud to be a fan of) or Wolf Hall, that are sort of like Deep Throat and other the classic porn movies -- if you have to admit to your tastes, they are the ones that are easy to claim as your own. Then there are the historical romances, like The Thorn Birds, that are akin to the new era of Jenna Jameson's plastic-porn hi-jinks. And there's the truly bizarre historical fictions, like I Claudius, that feel like titillating fetish porn full of stockings and S&M. It's easy to understand their readership (and viewership) even if they're not to one's own taste.
Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, therefore, have their porn equivalent: the world of polished, pseudo-amateur, "dirty girl" driven porn. And I shamefacedly declare right now that I am a fan of both.
Sharpe's Eagle, my latest foray into the career of Richard Sharpe, is the installment that pushed this comparison into the front of my mind and doomed me to writing this review. I found myself hiding the cover of Sharpe's Eagle, folding the front cover over the back, while in a long Christmas shopping line. For some reason I didn't want anyone to see what I was reading. Maybe it's because I teach literature and I didn't want anyone to see me reading something lacking seriousness, maybe there's still some flirty, teenage boy part of me, the D&D geek from way back, that didn't want some pretty girl to catch me being a geek. I'm really not sure which it was, but whichever it was, I caught myself hiding Sharpe's Eagle and had to force myself to pry the front cover away from the back to display my silly shame to the world. And when I walked out of that store, it struck me that I always do the same thing when it comes to porn. I hide the few movies I own, and I don't really talk to anyone (except my wife and Ruzz) about the bits of porn that I like.
And once this idea occurred to me, I was surprised at the textual parallels that sprang up to solidify the concept in my mind. Sharpe's Eagle isn't the best written work. Its prose is occasionally sloppy, and it's inconsistently paced. It is violent, espousing questionable ethics while simultaneously taking its own distinct stance on some pretty important issues. And it is terribly fun to read. I was excited to reach the next battle or the next bit of intrigue, and I found myself instantly looking forward to the next installment. Not in any obsessive or overwhelming or unhealthy way, but fondly and warmly because...well...reading Sharpe is enjoyable, and who doesn't like enjoying themselves?
The same goes for my "polished, pseudo-amateur, 'dirty girl' driven porn" preference. It isn't the best filmed work. Its quality is occasionally sloppy, and it's inconsistently paced. It is hyper-sexual, espousing questionable ethics while simultaneously taking its own distinct stance on some pretty important issues (some of it really does, I'm not kidding). And it is terribly fun to watch. I am excited to reach the next scene or the next shift in position, and I find myself looking forward to the next viewing. Not in any obsessive or overwhelming or unhealthy way, but fondly and warmly because...well...watching porn is enjoyable, and who doesn't like enjoying themselves?
So there you have it. To me, the adventures of Richard Sharpe are historical novel porn. And whether I should be ashamed of my enjoyment or not, I will continue to read them, and now I will proudly display their covers no matter what line I'm standing in.
I think I'll keep my porn movies hidden away, though. I'm not sure I can put those out with the general video population just yet....more
I am reading the Sharpe books in chronological order and have just reached Sharpe's Rifles, the first meeting of Lt. Richard Sharpe and his best frienI am reading the Sharpe books in chronological order and have just reached Sharpe's Rifles, the first meeting of Lt. Richard Sharpe and his best friend, Sgt. Harper, and I have to admit that the moment doesn't mean all that much to me.
It's crafted to be one of those great moments in fiction, and I suppose it could have been if I had approached Sharpe's Rifles from a different direction. Had I been reading the books in order of publication or even seen the occasional installment of the BBC's Sharpe movies, I think I would have been delighted to see the meeting of these men. But reading the books in order gives me no stake in their relationship. I have come to appreciate Sharpe, but I don't know Harper at all and just don't care about how they met yet.
That could change as the series goes on, but I am still not sure it would make a difference as far as their initial meeting is concerned because, as I said, it is "crafted" to be one of those great moments. And I don't know that the series has what it takes to be a "great" series, let alone be important enough for the meeting of its principles to be of serious interest to the literary world at large. Moreover, the crafting of the meeting feels forced in a way that truly great meetings of characters do not. Aubrey and Maturin meeting (a fine example considering their place in the Napoleonic oeuvre), coming as it does in the opening pages of the first book with no need for a prequel, is an organic growth of the story, and its impact is given a chance to grow over the course of Master and Commander with a feeling that anything could happen. And none of that is the case with Sharpe and Harper.
Regardless, Sharpe's Rifles is a decent read, but not one of the best in the series. There are too many inconsistencies with the books that come before, and Sharpe's tendency to fall for every pretty girl above his station (which he has done in ever preceding book, yet this is never mentioned in Sharpe's Rifles) is already becoming tedious.
The battles are rousing, though, and Cornwell always includes something fun and inventive -- like Sharpe's use of caltrops against the French Cavalry -- and Sharpe's brutal efficiency consistently sates the potential bloodlust of Cornwell's readers.
Bernard Cornwell also make sure there are interesting supporting characters. Despite the weakness of Sharpe's meeting with Harper, the Irish Sergeant is a promising partner for Sharpe, and the fiery Blas Vivar, the Spanish Major trying to work a miracle against the French, succeeds in overshadowing everyone in the story. The only complaint in the supporting cast is that every Frenchman is turning into a Napoleonic era Nazi -- too cruel, too dishonourable, too clever and just a little too evil. It will become downright annoying if it continues for the rest of the books, but for now it is merely noteworthy.
Sharpe's Rifles is only worth reading if you're committed to the series, if not you can probably get away with watching this installment on BBC. I have a feeling you won't miss anything of importance....more
I may have liked this more than it deserved because I read it around the birth of our third child (Katya is two days old as I write this), but whateveI may have liked this more than it deserved because I read it around the birth of our third child (Katya is two days old as I write this), but whatever the reason, I really had a good time with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.
Better than Cornwell's Richard Sharpe books, but not as good as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is really a novel of short stories. "Hornblower and the Examination for Lieutenant" and "Hornblower the Duchess, and the Devil" were my two favourite tales, but all of them were readable and kept my interest.
I am looking forward to reading a Hornblower novel rather than a series of Hornblower stories. I think an extended tale in the Hornblower saga would be more compelling. The little details when action is at a minimum, the relationships on board ship, those are the things that really interest me. I felt that Hornblower's years as a Midshipman were covered too fast, and there were times when the jumps in his career -- from action to action -- left gaps I wish were filled. I am probably just spoiled by the stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, though. I'll get over it. ...more
Sharpe's Prey is the first Sharpe book I really found exceptional. The four adventures in India and Trafalgar were fair and compelled me to read on, bSharpe's Prey is the first Sharpe book I really found exceptional. The four adventures in India and Trafalgar were fair and compelled me to read on, but Sharpe's Prey has actually made me a true fan of Cornwell's "great British hero."
My admiration for the stories is grounded in the bold statement stamped on the back cover of each book I have read: "Meet Richard Sharpe, a great British hero."
Sharpe is a murderous, thieving, brutish, self-pitying thug, but he's a thug with a brain and a strict ethical code that has very little to do with morals. He is decidedly not what we think of these days when we think of heroes.
His code, which he adheres to with honorable dedication, is a direct result of his childhood as an abused foundling orphan. Sharpe wants justice for himself and others, laws be damned; he protects the "innocent," which often translates into women and children, but is ruthless about cutting out weakness when he sees it; he is loyal to Great Britain, but only when he is given jobs (at least in the early stages of the series) that he must finish; he leaves no task undone; he is a sanguine avenger; and if he needs money or property he simply takes what he requires.
In fact, he breaks every one of the ten commandments, but that doesn't make him irredeemable or even evil (unless you go in for simplistic concepts of good and evil outlined by ancient mythologies). Sharpe is also capable of great loyalty for individuals, deep love (which he finds himself in often), complete trust, and remarkable sacrifice, charity and kindness.
Moreover, Richard Sharpe is complex, never adhering to the usual trajectory of modern heroes. He is not a pure hero with noble intentions fighting against the odds to complete a noble task. He is not one of those bad boys who falls in love and comes good. Nor is he one of those evil men who is redeemed by his one heroic action. There is no search for and promise of redemption in the Sharpe books. Nothing inside Sharpe or the external world he moves through is that simple. He is a man who does what he has to to survive and thrive, no matter what that may be.
Thus, the success of the Sharpe books -- particularly Sharpe's Prey, which opens with Sharpe committing murder and theft and ends with Sharpe robbing the rich to give to the poor -- lies in the complexity of Bernard Cornwell's main character. Richard Sharpe is not some idealistic and unrealistic hero. He is a wounded but intelligent man who happens to be good at killing, and because he does it for King and Country, he is considered a "hero." Right or wrong.
Would I call him great? I can't say. But I do love him....more
I'm bumping my rating of this up to five stars from four after my reread.
Damn this is a fine addition to the Aubrey-Maturin series. There is genuineI'm bumping my rating of this up to five stars from four after my reread.
Damn this is a fine addition to the Aubrey-Maturin series. There is genuine comfort in reading this book, and I think some of that comfort stems from Patrick O'Brian's comfort with his characters. O'Brian knows his men intimately by this fourth book, and he is able to let them live on their own, confident, it seems to me, that they will take him where they need to go.
In this case, they take him to the Mauritius campaign of 1809-1811. Jack Aubrey stands in for real life Commodore Josias Rowley, captaining HMS Boadicea, while Stephen is busy fomenting unrest on the islands. Apparently The Mauritius Command follows the true campaign faithfully, which makes for a fascinating experience for those who love historical novels, but the real interest for me is -- as always -- the characters. Whether reading (or rereading) about the family of men, Jack's "brothers" and friends and followers, I've grown to love as they live and work, or reading about the pathetically narcissistic Lord Clonfert and the fatally brutal Captain Corbett (who may have met his maker from "(un)friendly fire" during a pitched battle with the French), it is a reading experience I am able to fully immerse myself in. O'Brian's is a world I don't ever want to set aside.
I believe in O'Brian's fictional men, which makes me believe that O'Brian's take on the real men that surround them is equally plausible, and I want to be part of that group, eating plum duff and "hauling to" and boarding the enemy vessel and waiting for news from home. The closest I will ever come is O'Brian's books, but at least I have them. ...more
It's my second time through H.M.S. 'Surprise', and I am surprised to discover that I am ever so slightly disappointed. The narrative of H.M.S. 'SurpriIt's my second time through H.M.S. 'Surprise', and I am surprised to discover that I am ever so slightly disappointed. The narrative of H.M.S. 'Surprise' felt a little uneven this time through, and despite a breathless second act and an emotional denouement, I put it back on my shelf a little disappointed.
This disappointment feels strange, though, because there is so much that I love in the story. The opening debate over the Spanish gold -- prize money won at the end of Post Captain -- is a fascinating peripheral episode, and an important expansion of Sir Joseph Blaine. Stephen's reunion with Diana in Bombay is as it should be, and Patrick O'Brian's evocation of India is impressive and rather sad when it touches on the death of Stephen's guide, Dil (a death Stephen is inadvertently responsible for, having given her the silver bangles that led to her murder). One of my favourite fictional naval actions, Captain Jack Aubrey's defense of the East India Company's China Fleet through subterfuge and ballsiness, runs for nearly the entirety of the story's second act, and it stands out as one of the best battles in a series that spans twenty-one books. And the story ends with Maturin dueling with Canning at twenty paces. Stephen takes a ball in the chest, then kills Canning with a ball in the heart, but best of all, Maturin removes the ball from under his ribs in a steely surgical scene with help from Mr. M'Alister (his assistant) and Jack (which remains one of the best scenes pillaged by Peter Weir for his adaptation of Master and Commander). Yet for all that, I still feel disappointed.
The reason must be the doldrums of the first act. While I usually enjoy the pseudo-Regency romance of Aubrey-Maturin, while I usually love the day to day relationships of the Surprises, I found my attention drifting this time through. I dunno. Maybe it's just my mood. Maybe it's that I am reading Ulysses at the same time. I can't be sure what it is really.
But me being disappointed with H.M.S. 'Surprise' and giving it three stars isn't a clear reflection of how I feel about the book. For me the entire series -- all twenty and a half books -- are worthy of five stars. So H.M.S. 'Surprise' stands in judgment only alongside its kin, not literature at large. It's three stars, but any O'Brian book, even H.M.S. 'Surprise' still comes before most books on my to-read shelf when I need something late in the night. ...more
ii. I'm at it again, but this time I opened up my Aubrey-Maturin reread by listening. It took a month of commuting, but it was worth the time and thii. I'm at it again, but this time I opened up my Aubrey-Maturin reread by listening. It took a month of commuting, but it was worth the time and the patience, and though I have gleaned no new insights into Master and Commander, my enjoyment of the audio experience was more than fulfilling enough.
O'Brian wasn't a big fan of the audio versions of his books, nor of the men reading them: “To revert to my ideal reader: he would avoid obvious emotion, italics and exclamation marks like the plague - trying to put life into flat prose is as useful as flogging a dead horse.” As a fan of O'Brian's "flat prose," however, and one who is only coming to the audio books after having read the novels multiple times, the life that his readers bring to the characters is as welcome as a fine Madeira off Gibraltar.
I've long heard that Patrick Tull is the man to listen too when it comes to Aubrey-Maturin books, but my MP3 copy of Master and Commander was read by Simon Vance. I was a little disappointed at first because I wanted to hear and engage with Tull's reported excellence, but once Vance's vocal performance began, once Stephen and Jack were jostling one another during the concert at the Governor's Mansion, I was content.
The voices of Jack and Stephen took some getting used to (and I am not a fan of Vance's Spanish accent), but the range of his vocalizations is quite impressive. And I really enjoyed his narrative voice. It is clear, emotive without being too much so, and he offers a real liveliness during Naval actions. I think my favorite part of his reading, though, was his characterization of First Lieutenant James Dillon. Dillon is an important corner of the first book's Aubrey-Maturin-Dillon triangle, and his presence is key to the love Aubrey and Maturin come to have for one another. Vance captures the subtlety of this, making Dillon likable even when he's being unfair to Jack -- as it should be.
It was such a good experience that I have already purchased Post Captain. Tull may be the best reader of Aubrey-Maturin, but don't be afraid of Vance, especially if you've not heard Tull before, he does a commendable job.
i. When I do finally get around to writing my PhD, I want to do my work on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. It offers endless possibilities for critical analysis and even more possibilities for discussion.
One could paint politics, science, sports, warfare, literary allusions, sexuality, manners, and all things naval of Aubrey/Maturin without ever tiring the possibilities, and these are only the broadest strokes. Each of these themes -- and countless others I haven't mentioned -- generate focused areas of specialization that could cover everything from the most general to the most minute.
But when you're rereading Master and Commander (in my case it's the first rereading), most of those concerns take a backseat to the simple strength of O'Brian's vision. Everything you need to know about Lucky Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin takes shape in O'Brian's masterpiece of an inaugural novel, and one wonders how much of O'Brian's twenty and a half books he had in his mind the day he sat down to start writing the story with his pen and paper.
The first book foreshadows the last, and for a series that reaches upwards of 10,000 thousand pages, that level of coherence and depth is a tremendous feat.
We learn of Jack's genius at sea and his social ineptness on land. We learn of his needy ego and unquenchable desire for advancement. We learn of his fierce loyalty and his even fiercer libido. We learn of his pure love for his ships and how that love opens him up to emotional wounding. We're introduced also to nearly every person who will be important to Jack, for good or ill, over the course of his career.
We learn of Stephen's love for naturalism and physic. We learn of his deep loyalty of and care for Jack. We get hints, if we are paying close attention, to his role as a spy and his frighteningly dangerous temper. We are introduced to his loathing of Napoleon and his indifference to King George. We are shown the earliest manifestations of his shipmates' respect for his skills, and his absolute inability to understand anything nautical. We even get a hint that he will never leave Jack's side.
And of course we are introduced to Jack's fiddle, Stephen's cello and Killick's toasted cheese, which are at the heart of what I think is the most compelling component of the Aubrey/Maturin books -- the intimacy between Jack and Stephen.
No matter whom they marry, whom they hate, whom they love, whom they care for, whom they save, whom they kill, they are and will always be the most important people in each others lives; from the moment they bump heads at the concert to the last moment of 21, Aubrey and Maturin are intimates in every emotional sense of the word. They are intimate in a way that Holmes and Watson, Crusoe and Friday, and Jeeves and Wooster never approach. They are as close as two humans can be, and I find myself longing for that companionship. Of course it is impossible, but I can live vicariously through Aubrey/Maturin, and for any man longing for intimacy in a world that denies men intimacy, Master and Commander, and every book that follows, is a boon companion in a lonely world.
Next up: Post Captain...again...and I can't wait. ...more
Lieutenant Hornblower may be the name of the book, and he's certainly what it's about, but there's a fine little twist that begins on the first page aLieutenant Hornblower may be the name of the book, and he's certainly what it's about, but there's a fine little twist that begins on the first page and is sustained throughout: Lieutenant Hornblower is not from his point of view.
Instead of experiencing HMS Renown's time in the Caribbean through Lieutenant Hornblower's eyes, we see the Renown's mission to Santo Domingo from the perspective of one of Horatio's superior officers, Lieutenant William Bush.
Bush -- a solid, steady, unimaginative Lieutenant -- meets Hornblower in the earliest stages of the novel, and everything we know about the title character comes through the filter of Bush. At first Bush finds Hornblower fascinating, then he feels a twinge of jealousy, then some fear when he wonders if Hornblower is responsible for maiming Captain Sawyer (and putting him permanently out of commission), then wonder at Hornblower's self-control, then some admiration, before a return of anger, and finally a deep respect and devoted friendship for the junior officer who is destined to become his superior.
It's an interesting move for an author of a series to make, but [C.S. Forester:]'s use of Bush in Lieutenant Hornblower is effective in a couple of pragmatic ways. First, Forester controls exactly what he wants us to know about Hornblower; second, this withheld knowledge leaves us always wondering, along with Bush, whether Hornblower really did have anything to do with the injuring of Captain Sawyer, and maybe even his murder during the retaking of Renown from a pack of captured privateers; third, it gives us the very important experience of seeing how the men who follow Hornblower, subordinates and superiors alike, come to lay their lives on the line for such a distant, arrogant, mysterious and precocious young man.
Lieutenant Hornblower isn't without its flaws, though. It's nautical bits seem to be a bit of annoyance to the author, who uses them primarily as a way to move the reader from one nasty battle or action set piece to the next. This peculiarity makes it feel more like something out of the Sharpe series, Bernard Cornwell's anti-heroic rifleman, than Patrick O'Brian's superior Aubrey/Maturin series. Which isn't to say that Cornwell and Forester are bad -- far from it -- but I'd much rather eat a perfectly cooked steak than overcooked hamburgers.
Then again, when steak isn't available burger is a satisfying substitute. And I've know doubt I will be eating burgers again very soon....more