During the Age of Sail, which lasted roughly from the 16th to mid-19th century, elaborately-rigged tall ships served to transport goods and passengers and to wage wars, like the Napoleonic Wars, which is famously portrayed in the fiction of Patrick O’Brian. O’Brian’s 21 novel series featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin were first published between 1969 and 1999 and are still among the most popular sea stories going. Not only is the series filled with impeccably accurate details of life and vessels at sea, fast-paced action and high drama, O’Brian takes a more involved approach to character development than most other authors of sea adventure novels. For this reason it’s a good idea to read a few of the first books before plunging into later titles, so you get in on the early character development. Otherwise you don’t need to read them in order. The first of the series is Master and Commander.
If you’ve already read the Aubrey and Maturin series, don’t panic! Other fine tall ship sea stories abound. Sean Russell’s new Charles Hayden novels, Under Enemy Colors, A Battle Won and Take, Burn or Destroy feature another intrepid British naval officer, Lieutenant Charles Hayden. We find Hayden in 1793, initially sailing under the cowardly, tyrannical Captain Hart aboard a broken-down Themis, against France. Like O’Brian’s, Russell’s series is character-centric, dryly humorous and filled with the sailing jargon we have all grown to appreciate from this genre. Readers who love O’Brian and have tried to find similar series will probably be aware of C. S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower series, beginning with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, in which the teen-aged Horatio rises to officer standing through his performance in battle against the French and the Spanish. Filled with authentic dialogue and great nautical detail, master storyteller Forrester pulls you into all 11 adventure stories.
Lietuenant Ramage starts his career by abandoning his ship and then facing a court-martial in the first series book, Ramage, by Dudley Pope. This humorous and action-packed saga features young Ramage’s career over the course of 18 books, culminating in his command of the indomitable Dido against the French in the West Indies in Ramage and the Dido, the final novel of the series. Readers who love this fast action, ribald and realistic description of sea life in the early 19th century will also want to try Dewey Lambdin’s series which follows spoiled rich boy Alan Lewrie’s meteoric rise through naval ranks as he quickly growing into a brawny and savvy officer. Commander of the H. M. S. Jester, Lewrie fights the French in the Adriatic in Jester’s Fortune. This series need not be read in order and the strong mid-series Jester’s Fortune is a great place to start the adventure.
For more historical sea story suggestions, check out my book list, Historical Fiction: Sea Stories.