On Being Spoiled by Patrick O'Brian

Having read the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian in the last five months, I was in a comfortable, nautical groove. I thought I might stay there with the novels of Alexander Kent, (the pen name of Douglas Reeman for his late 18th - early 19th century wooden ship series featuring Richard Bolitho).

After reading a couple, I don't think I will continue with them. I miss O'Brian's encyclopedic erudition and psychological depth. More than once, Reeman has described a tropical coast as "a mass of rotting vegetation". O'Brian would name the species of trees and shrubs to be seen. Reeman imagines "red birds". O'Brian would name the birds.

There is no question that Reeman knows his ships. He gives a much grittier account of the life on the lower decks, and his seamen are a good deal less content than Aubrey's jolly crews. But on the whole, the Bolitho series does not rise above the level of "men's adventure" fiction. Too often, the action is driven by "bad guys". The characters are very roughly sketched. Bolitho seems to have no inner life apart from his role as a ship's captain.

And he seems anachronistic to me. I doubt whether many British naval officers would, in the 1780's, have been so opposed to flogging and slavery. Aubrey, 20 years later, dislikes flogging, but accepts slavery as a fact of life.

(8/27/09) Reading on through Command a King's Ship, I feel I may have been too harsh here. Perhaps it is not really fair to make O'Brian a yardstick to measure other authors of nautical fiction. I will let you know when I find a work that matches the power of Desolation Island, IMO O'Brian's best.

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