Friday, 12 January 2001

Post captain

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony #4 in A minor, Op. 63.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O’Brian, Post captain.

This is the second in the series, and is probably the biggest book of the seven I’ve read so far. The way in which the size of the books toned down after the first two suggests to me that it was only at this point that O’Brian realised he was onto a long-lived series. (There are 20 books in the Aubrey-Maturin series all told.) For example, the blurb on the back of the paperback edition I bought talked about a set of events that sounded as if they could fill a reasonable sized book. Aubrey and Maturin are in France during the Peace of Amiens, but when war is declared once again, Napoleon tries to have all British citizens arrested, and the two heroes have to escape. You might think that this would be a substantial part of the book, but in fact, this is a relatively unimportant prelude to the main action.

It is in this novel that the reader is properly introduced to Stephen Maturin's activities as a secret agent for the British Admiralty. The blurb for the edition of Master and commander that I read, clearly written well after the series was well underway, describes Maturin as a secret agent, but nothing is made of this in the first novel.

Post captain is engrossing because it describes all sorts of aspects of life at the turn of the 19th century, not just naval battles. Its depiction of society doesn’t have Jane Austen’s light finesse and wit, but it does an appealing job of conveying the feel of life 200 years ago. I certainly don’t think that you could dismiss these books as simple war stories. A better characterisation might be historical novels about naval characters.

There is a bit of naval action in this novel, and it’s exciting to read (particularly the missions in the experimental ship Polychrest), but events on land, romance and pecuniary affairs, are probably most important.

A lost comic:

The famous User Friendly. This comic even got its own O’Reilly book, which is surely a pretty good indication of the strip’s reputation. It’s all about a team working at a small ISP/Internet company. It does a pretty good line in skewering the idiocies of the world on the web. Points against would be: terrible art (the character’s faces are consistent and recognisable, but limbs and other parts of the depicted world look amateurish), yet another pointless cute animal sidekick, and the occasionally dreary soap storyline.