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I suspect that there are few now living who know as much about the 18th century as Patrick O'Brian. I know of none who can write about the period with his vigor and authority. In the 17 novels thus far published in his Aubrey/Maturin series, following the adventures of a Captain in the Royal Navy and his best friend, a sardonic ship's surgeon, during the Napoleonic Wars, O'Brian has summoned up an entire world, peopled it with a motley, ingenious cast and set out to reveal, through their varied adventures, a great deal about the ideas, habits, hopes and fears of another time.
The Unknown Shore, first published in 1959, seems in many ways like a rehearsal for the later series. It features two protagonists who are clearly ancestors of Capt. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin: Midshipman Jack Byron, ebullient, kind-hearted, anxious for action, and surgeon's mate Tobias Barrow, somber, intelligent, with an overwhelming curiosity about the natural world. The two meet on board the Wager, part of a British fleet setting out in 1740 to circumnavigate the globe. The Wager makes it no farther than the coast of South America, where she founders after a storm. A mutiny follows, and Byron and Barrow find themselves among the officers abandoned on a harsh stretch of coastline, far from home or help. A series of remarkable, but believable, adventures follow.
Perhaps the greatest surprise about this book is that O'Brian had already hit his stride as a stylist 36 years ago. One of the most distinctive features of the Aubrey/Maturin series is O'Brian's precise, beautifully cadenced prose, reminiscent of the 18th century without ever sounding quaint.