Reviews

The Far Side of the World, by Patrick O'Brian

daniel_wood's review

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adventurous challenging funny informative inspiring lighthearted mysterious reflective relaxing tense medium-paced

5.0

gitli57's review

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adventurous funny informative reflective

4.0

One of the realities of historical fiction done well is that the attitudes and language on display will sometimes seem problematic for modern sensibilities. Nobody does historical fiction better than Patrick O'Brian. The setting for this magnificent series is the English Navy during the Napoleonic wars. His attention to period detail has been widely praised. It should also be noted that O'Brian is not a romantic or a sentimentalist. He does not shy away from the nastier social aspects of the time and place or from the brutalities of war. In this volume, descriptions of whaling, some racist characters, graphic depictions of war violence and other details may be challenging for some as they were for me. Certainly, none of his characters could be described as anachronistically woke. But his lead characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, are thoughtful, sympathetic and progressive. Their friendship is one of the greatest in all of literature. And O'Brian writes beautifully, especially about the natural world and all the beings in it. I do not read much historical fiction and very little military historical fiction, but O'Brian remains a favorite for the consistent sheer immersive quality of his writing as well as the thoughtful development of his lead characters.

joshuarigsby's review

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adventurous medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.0

cauldhamer's review

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adventurous inspiring medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

hteph's review

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adventurous medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.75

danielshelsel's review

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adventurous medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.5

mferber's review against another edition

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4.0

Our Boys in the British Navy hit the Pacific Ocean. Terrific as always, and Patrick Tull's narration of the audiobooks continues to be a thing of joy.

edgeworth's review against another edition

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4.0

This is the halfway point of the series, and the book from which the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation takes most (but not nearly all) of its plot. HMS Surprise is dispatched from Gibraltar in pursuit of the USS Norfolk, which has been sent to harass British whalers in the South Pacific. (We are, at this point, well into what O’Brian calls his fictional 1812b, in which he spun out the year indefinitely to avail himself of its most interesting historical events). And so The Far Side of the World takes us all the way down past the coast of Brazil, around the Antarctic storms of Cape Horn, up past Chile and the Galapagos and out into the warm tropical waters of Polynesia.

It’s a great book, one of the best in the series, and possibly the only book that features no extended naval battles. Peter Weir’s film of course ends with a confrontation of gunpowder and steel, but what happens in the novel when Surprise finally tracks down her quarry is infinitely more interesting – I won’t give away precisely what it is, but suffice to say it’s a sort of character-driven pressure-cooker situation of steadily increasing tensions between two opposing groups, the kind of thing (among many other things) which makes me dearly wish HBO would commission a multi-million dollar TV series of these books.

There’s another tremendous setpiece which unfolds perfectly. Fishing from the rear window of Jack’s cabin one night, the typically clumsy Stephen topples into the water, and with a cry of “clap on to the cutter!” Jack dives in after him without a second thought. Stephen's constant ability to find himself in the drink has been played for laughs so many times by now that it’s quite a shock as the scene progresses and the reader realises Jack and Stephen are in far more danger than first thought: the cutter is not being towed behind the ship after all, there is nothing to clap onto, and Jack’s cries for assistance are drowned out by the singing of the sailors on the deck.

He had set Stephen to float on his back, which he could do tolerably well when the sea was calm; but an unfortunate ripple, washing over his face just as he breathed in, sank him again; again he had to be brought up, and now Jack’s “Surprise ahoy,” coming at the full pitch of his powerful voice, had an edge of anxiety to it, for although the ship was not sailing fast, every minute she moved more than a hundred yards, and already her lights were dimming in the mist.
Hail after hail after hail, enough to startle the dead: but when she was no more than the blur of the planet earlier in the night he fell silent, and Stephen said, “I am extremely concerned, Jack, that my awkwardness should have brought you into such very grave danger.”
“Bless you,” said Jack, “it ain’t so very grave as all that. Killick is bound to come into the cabin in half an hour or so, and Mowett will put the ship about directly.”


But Killick turns in early, and as the weaker Stephen lapses into unconsciousness through the night while the two of them float alone in the terrifyingly enormous Pacific Ocean, Jack’s mathematical calculations of time and distance and drift and endurance lead him to a bleak conclusion. Aside from being engaging in itself, this scene is a wonderful demonstration of their friendship: Stephen’s awkwardness has in fact got them both killed, but this never crosses Jack’s consideration, never leads to any acrimony or recriminations, even privately. Instead, knowing that being adrift in the ocean is far more terrifying for his friend than for him, Jack never treats him with anything less than gentleness.

In the midst of his calculations he became aware that Stephen, lying there as stiff as a board, was becoming distressed. “Stephen,” he said, pushing him, for Stephen’s head was thrown back so far that he could not easily hear, “Stephen, turn over, put your arms round my neck, and we will swim for a little.” Then as he felt Stephen’s feet on the back of his legs, “You have not kicked off your shoes. Do not you know you must kick off your shoes? What a fellow you are, Stephen.”

And cleverly – as in The Fortune of War, when Stephen and Jack’s different strengths play off each other as they find themselves stranded alone in Boston – it’s Stephen’s skills as a naturalist and anthropologist which come in to play when the two men are rescued by a Polynesian vessel crewed entirely by women, and it slowly becomes clear to Stephen in particular that this is not a society in which men will be welcomed; indeed, it’s only his memory of a very specific Polynesian word which saves Jack from an unpleasant fate.

Overall, one of the very finest entries in the series. I usually only read a few of these per year, but just burned through The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World in a single month while travelling, so I’ll have to back off and pace myself again.

plantbirdwoman's review against another edition

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4.0

Two years ago, I started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series after years of prodding by my husband who insisted that the books weren't really war adventures - which I would hate - but were more about the relationships of the men on the ships. Finally succumbing to his persuasion, I found that hubby was right. Again.

In fact, I do like this series very much. I've been reading it now at a rate of about five books a year, more or less, and if I continue on that pace, I should have at least two more years of good reading ahead. So far, I have not found a stinker among the books and this tenth one is, I think, my favorite of all that I've read.

The bromance between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin continues in The Far Side of the World. Aubrey is still captaining the Surprise which, much to his distress, had been designated to return to England to be decommissioned and possibly broken up for scrap. But he and the ship get a reprieve. He is commanded to take the ship to protect English whalers and to stop the American frigate, the Norfolk, from interfering with them.

The Surprise chases the Norfolk all across the Atlantic, along the coast of South America, and finally around Cape Horn and into the vast openness of the Pacific Ocean. They never come very close to catching the Americans and they have many adventures along the way.

The trip sees one of the most serious disagreements ever to occur between Aubrey and Maturin when Aubrey refuses to allow Maturin and his friend, the parson Martin, time to explore the Galapagos Islands. The captain is convinced that they are getting closer to Norfolk and he will not dim his chances by slowing down for science.

Maturin is angry, but his is not a nature that can hold a grudge for long.

Sometime later, through a combination of circumstances, Maturin, who has never really mastered the art of seamanship in all his years as a ship's surgeon, manages to fall from the ship into the Pacific. Aubrey turns to speak to him and finds him gone. He realizes almost immediately what has happened and jumps in to save his friend, who is not a proficient swimmer. He gets the doctor stabilized and begins to hail the ship to bring them on board, but there is a noisy celebration going on and the crew cannot hear him. The ship obliviously continues on its course, leaving the two treading water in the middle of the Pacific.

Things do not look hopeful, but there follows some of the most exciting adventures encountered by Aubrey/Maturin in all their years together. It won't really be a spoiler to say that they do survive. Since there are ten more books in the series, that's pretty evident, but how they survive is the real heart of this book and the bang-up ending just puts the capper on it.

Some of the recent books have put the emphasis on Stephen Maturin's secret work as an intelligence agent. This one is centered on Jack Aubrey's skills as a sailor and his knowledge of the ocean - if not always of human nature. Their relationship continues to deepen and grow stronger through their shared experiences. They often give a thought to their wives back in England, and Aubrey to his children there, but, in fact, they are more married to each other than to any woman. They spend more time with each other than with any other humans. They are very much like an old married couple - each knowing what the other is thinking even before the thought is expressed. The other members of the crew, like Aubrey's man Killick and Maturin's Padeen, make up their extended family. The Surprise is very much a family and these stories, while nominally following the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812, are really about the relationships of this family and how they care for each other in often trying circumstances. So, yes, hubby was right about that.

One of the many pleasures of these books is the language. O'Brian obviously was a careful researcher and his language feels true to the period about which he is writing. I'm not competent to assess the accuracy of his nautical terms, many of which my eyes glide right over, but I suspect they are spot on. The language that really grabs me, though, is that of the dialogue. It is full of such humor and it just seems to be the way that sailors of the period would talk. It is a real treat to read a conversation between Maturin and Aubrey and, in this particular book, between Maturin and his friend Martin.

Both Maturin and Martin are enthusiastic naturalists and most of their conversations concern the flora and fauna of the places they visit. They are particularly good on the birds of those areas. For a backyard birder like myself, those conversations are really some of my favorite parts of this book.

There was, of course, a movie made a few years ago - "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" - which mostly relied on the events from this book. I saw the movie in the theater at the time and quite enjoyed it, although, now, I can't really recall too much about what happened in it. Now that I've read the book, maybe I should see it again.

nwhyte's review

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4.0

http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/2184846.html[return][return]The plot as such is pretty minimal - Aubrey is sent to pursue an American ship in the South Atlantic and the Pacific, with a dramatic denouement - but there's a lovely comforting amount of social, historical and geographical detail through which we navigate, including a thrilling passage where our heroes are captured by Polynesian warrior women. There's a brilliant bit about the difference in working cultures between warships and whalers, which may perhaps be O'Brian's response to Melville fans. My one complaint is that my copy of the book is missing pages 183-214, so I had to check Wikipedia to discover the end of the subplot involving the aging midshipman and the gunner's wife.