Friday, October 31, 2014

Journey Through the Pages

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series stands tall over the genre of maritime fiction, eclipsing ancestor series like those of C. S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower) and ancestor/concurrent works by Dudley Pope (Lord Ramage) and Alexander Kent (Richard Bolitho). Since O'Brian's death, both Pope and Kent have continued writing their own characters, James L. Nelson has put together a couple of good trilogies and Dewey Lambdin came out with a decent start before making his series hero, Alan Lewrie, an unlikeable cad who seems to exist so his author can write adolescent wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to his sex life. Bernard Cornwell, author of the other major Napoleonic-era conflict military series, put his hero Richard Sharpe at sea only once (Sharpe's Trafalgar) and generally stuck to the land.

Julian Stockwin, a former Royal Australian Navy petty officer, was also a big fan of the Napoleonic era Royal Navy, and became very interested in the case of a handful of RN officers in that period who gained the quarterdeck of officer country "through the hawsehole," or by advancement from the ranks of everyday sailors. His Thomas Kydd follows that pattern, originally in the service when he runs afoul of a RN press gang searching for men they can "recruit" -- more literally, abduct -- to serve against France. But the adrift Kydd finds in seafaring and the service the kind of challenge and purpose he has long needed and begins a slow climb through the ranks through diligence, bravery and no small amount of luck. At each step, newfound power and ability brings newfound responsibility and reflection on it.

When we get to 2006's Command, the seventh novel in the series, Kydd has worked his way to second lieutenant of a ship of the line, but soon finds himself commanding the brig-sloop Teazer in the eastern Mediterranean. Kydd has to struggle to make his ship ready for sailing and battle, and then finds himself all too often confined to transporting dispatches and scouting duty -- necessary, but unlikely to offer a chance to shine and gain advancement. When a peace treaty is signed, he finds himself out of a ship and out of a job. Still worse, his friend and fellow-officer Nicholas Renzi, with whom he has shared most of his adventures, is deathly ill and may not survive. Kydd's desperate search for some role at sea puts him and Nicholas on a course for a long journey and for conflict, both geographically and personally.

Command represents a sort of punctuation in the series, which currently stands at 15 books and which Stockwin projects to finish at 21. The bulk of Kydd's transformation from foremast hand to officer is complete when he takes his first command, as now changes in his role will involve more degree than kind than before. It's also a punctuation for Nicholas, who has been serving with Thomas but who does not have the drive or desire for the Navy shown by his friend. But he has his own passions and whether they will drive the friends apart to different paths is not yet a settled question.

Stockwin began the series in 2001 with a deft hand at period dialogue and description, and a better-than-average narrative gift. As it's progressed, he's improved at nearly every part of his work and the Kydd series has become just about as good as you can get for historical or genre fiction both. He is not O'Brian and does not give his novels the full 18th-century flavor that the older author had, but he is very good in his own right and is telling the story he wants to tell at a pretty high level. O'Brian's series was very much into the arena of "serious literature" in addition to being great, audience-satisfying yarns; of those who've come after him Stockwin seems to be very much at the head of the pack in ability, vision and execution. As they inhabit different worlds, Jack Aubrey and Thomas Kydd never met. But had they done so, they would have had quite a bit to talk about and probably would have enjoyed the conversation.

In lieu of such a "My Dinner with Aubrey" narrative, both characters' series have more than enough to offer for those who follow their adventures.

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