Patrick O'Brian-ish
April 4, 2005 5:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm a huge fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of novels. Recently I took a break from the books, not only to catch up with all the other books I was neglecting in favour of my literary addiction, but also because I felt I needed a vacation from my old friends the captain and the doctor. Now I'm wondering: What are similarly good and addictive novels, or series of novels?

I'm not necessarily looking for something very similar; it doesn't have to be 19th century nautical warfare, 19th century anything, or indeed nautical anything. That said, I love historical novels, and I do love the smell of gunpowder in the morning.

What impresses me more than anything about O'Brian is the low-key and indirect approach: he is amazingly subtle. He never explains the subtext, never embellishes the action or the violence (physical or otherwise, but always brutal), and the narrative is carved out of terse, rough, slightly archaic turns of phrase, lighting and colour like a William Turner paintining, managing the great feat of seeming real and immediate and also ancient -- historic, distant and even epic, in O'Brian's peculiarly restrained way.

The only other authors that have, in my reading experience, accomplished the same feat are Tolkien and -- seriously -- James Ellroy. Conversely, I thought Robert Graves' I, Claudius would be a garden of literary delights -- the Roman empire! Ancient history! Neat! -- and while I appreciate his occasional poetic bent, it's pretty dry stuff, full of encyclopedic exposition. I also checked out Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, and while it's reasonably well written, it's a little too straightforward and pulp-fictionish for my taste; Cornwell may have visited Europe during the Napoleonic wars, but O'Brian damn well lived there.

So what should I delve into? It should be a little dusty -- but not too dusty -- and a little off the beaten Book of the Month Club path. It should be intelligent and challenging and well-written. Series is a bonus, but not a requirement. I don't mind genre fiction at all.
posted by gentle to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You might like Zola's series-- the ROUGON-MACQUART CYCLE,, i think (altho subtle he's not). The books follow generations of a family in 19th century France. Start with Nana (my fav, about a whore/courtesan/etc) and go backwards and/or forwards--L'Assommoir is really good too, for a starting point.
posted by amberglow at 5:30 PM on April 4, 2005

Best answer: Let me do some shelfwalking here...

Trilogies: Pat Barker's Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road (a lovely meditation on WWI); Madison Smartt Bell's All Souls' Rising, Master of the Crossroads, The Stone the Builder Refused (Toussaint Louverture; occasional gore, somewhat challenging, will repay the investment of time); Patricia Finney's Firedrake's Eye, Unicorn's Blood, Gloriana's Torch (Elizabethan spy thrillers; more genre than the first two, but smart & finely written); William Golding's Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, Fire Down Below (colonists on a loonnng trip to Australia).

Longer series: Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet (wonderful, thoughtful novels about US culture from the colonial period into the twentieth century); Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet (tracks a rape accusation and its long after-effects); George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman... novels (comic Victorian novels; very funny, although a little up-and-down in terms of quality); Gore Vidal's American Chronicle Series (the last one was really sloppy; Burr and Lincoln are probably the most interesting).

Engrossing non-series novels: Sarah Waters' neo-Victorian lesbian Gothics (she's a strong writer and very good with atmosphere).

Now, if you want some really, really old series--and are ready for the long haul--get thee to Anthony Trollope's Barchester and Palliser novels.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:49 PM on April 4, 2005

Response by poster: Two replies and I'm already getting more than I bargained for. Great! My shopping cart is bulging at the seams already.

thomas, that's a whopping list of fascinating suggestions. I've been thinking that something like the Flashman books ought to exist, but I never imagined that they already did. Which one would you recommend to start with? And have you read any of Connie Willis' books, by any chance? To Say Nothing of the Dog is wonderful.
posted by gentle at 6:18 PM on April 4, 2005

Oh, you might like the The Forsyte Saga too, by Galsworthy--another look at a family over generations--English--late 19th-20th c. (i found it too subtle and British, but lots of people like it)
posted by amberglow at 6:46 PM on April 4, 2005

Best answer: I love the Patrick O'Brien novels too, and I also only read one or two at a time. Partly to make the series last, partly to avoid burnout, and partly to help savor each one rather then burning through them in a gluttonous frenzy of glorious fiction.

I mention this only so you may think my tastes have some overlap as yours.

This one's not particularly historical, but I highly reccomend the "His Dark Materials" books by Philip Pullman to pretty much everyone I meet. So let me just get that out of the way.

On the historical front, let's see - the Mary Renault books, mostly about the Classical world, are quite good. Rosemary Sutcliff does more Roman Britain, is oriented towards young adults, and isn't as great a writer - but they are enjoyable. I second the Gore Vidal - wonderful, wonderful books that changed how I view American history. Ooh ooh - "The Sotweed Factor" by John Barth is a great book set in a somewhat exaggerated colonial america - pretty over-the-top, but I think history needs more of that. Perhaps Mason Dixon by Pynchon is *too* over-the-top, but I quite liked it. Um, last colonial America book: I'm in the middle of "I, Roger Williams" by Mary Settle (founder of PEN! Who knew?), so I can't say for sure it's great yet, but it seems quite good thus far.

Just for fun - some people think "The Wind Up Bird Chronicles" is the Best Book Ever. I think it's just pretty damn good, but I mean it. Gormenghast creates a wonderful fantasy/allegorical world, and the writer was an illustrator so the imagery is absolutely incredible. Oh, and while I'm just checking him out, Cormac McCarthy has really impressed me so far, esp. Blood Meridian. Be prepared for some beautiful and absolutely horrific imagery.

OK, that's what popped into my head. You're lucky I'm not at home with access to my bookshelves.

OP: There're a lot of "families over generations" comments - I had a girlfriend who really liked these monster books about England over several centuries...I can't remember the author's name, but the books included "Sarum" and "London". I can't vouch for those, and honestly they looked a little overdone and underwritten, but I know some people really like them.
posted by freebird at 6:54 PM on April 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Well, it's mainstreamy fantasy, but a friend of mine who loved both O'Brian and Tolkien also loved the Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones is the first book).
posted by fleacircus at 6:57 PM on April 4, 2005

that's Rutherford--London and Sarum and The Forest. They're quick reads and not bad--like Michener really--good for plane rides.

I'll second Gormenghast--incredible books, uneven at times and drifty, but so very evocative and beautifully written.
posted by amberglow at 7:12 PM on April 4, 2005

George R.R. Martin is the Tom Clancy of fantasy. You'll read the series, you'll enjoy it, but you'll feel kinda dirty at the end and wonder if your time could have been better spent.


For fantasy, I'd first recommend Tad Williams "Dragonbone Chair" series, or the abovementioned "Gormenghast" or Philip Pullman books, though these aren't really genre. And don't get me wrong, the Ice and Fire stuff is fun.
posted by freebird at 7:14 PM on April 4, 2005

First off, thanks: I'm in the middle of my 3rd trip through the series and I need to stop. Raymond Chandler (esp. if you like Ellroy) is my other fiction obsession.
posted by yerfatma at 7:32 PM on April 4, 2005

Best answer: A hearty second for Flashman.

Flashman is the Yin to the Aubrey Maturin novels Yang (or is it Yang to Yin?) I read both series back-to-back-- Flashman was exactly what I needed after 20 novels of low-key and subtlety. Imagine the shock of going from novels that beautifully detail the monotony of Napoleonic war naval life to a series that constantly determines not to bore the reader with the details of his voyages (not to mention going from bull-headed bravery to unabashed cowardice).

Start with Flashman and Royal Flash, then pick and choose with wild abandon (Flashy would approve).

I love His Dark Materials trilogy, too
posted by cosmonaught at 7:48 PM on April 4, 2005

and the Gormenghast books, though Titus Alone is a little rough...
posted by cosmonaught at 7:50 PM on April 4, 2005

Great question, superb answers, very helpful.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 7:51 PM on April 4, 2005

Best answer: Also, have you checked out the Horatio Hornblower series (C.S. Forester)? I've always felt the O'Brien novels are about half Horatio Hornblower and half James Joyce.

OK maybe 1/3 and 1/3 :) Anyhow, if you're not expecting the emotional richness and the depth of O'Brien, they seem quite good - I've only read one, so YMMV.
posted by freebird at 8:21 PM on April 4, 2005

Although the only connection with O'Brien's series is that both are written by authors yearnng for a specific kind of lost England -- in this case the dying days of the upper classes -- Simon Raven's Alms For Oblivion series is just fucking fantastic. Er, to me.
posted by bonaldi at 8:23 PM on April 4, 2005

Have you tried Joseph Conrad? A fantastically good writer, imho. His characterizations are as good as O'Brien's, and though some of his plots are slow, they're wonderful reading. In fact I found O'Brien through the pleasure I've had from Conrad. The Arrow of Gold was my latest Conrad dip.

And another vote for Philip Pullman's trilogy: he also makes very real people. Pick up The Golden Compass in the bookstore and test the water with a page or two. It passes as a young adult book but really is much deeper than that. If you read all three, leave some time between each so you can enjoy the next more.
posted by anadem at 9:31 PM on April 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oh, and totally different, but a read I enjoyed a lot: Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson. Not at all like O'Brien though!
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is also an interesting change-of-world.
posted by anadem at 9:39 PM on April 4, 2005

Best answer: Not nautical, not nineteenth century, but really good just the same are Alan Furst's historical espionage novels. They take place in Europe in the 1930s and 40s and in addition to being fun reads are extremely evocative of the period and very well researched. Highly recommended.
posted by hwickline at 11:08 PM on April 4, 2005

Best answer: Yet another vote for the Flashman series. Not entirely sure that there's a best place to start, as I've yet to read a bad one, but I really enjoyed Flashman And The Dragon as I suddenly discovered I hadn't a clue about Sino-British relations in the Victorian era and that they were in fact quite interesting.

Other series:

The Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell may suit you. Following the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a British solider in the early 19th century, they're not as well written as the likes of Flashman or Aubrey-Maturin but they're plotted pretty hard and they're a decent read. I'm slightly biased as the TV series that was made out of the novels was the Best Thing Around for me as a teenage boy.

And, my personal favourite, the Dalziel and Pascoe novels by Reginald Hill. Literate, witty, well-written detective novels, they become more and more ambitious as they go on, with threads and plots from previous novels being picked up by later ones. They all stand alone, but if you start with something like The Wood Beyond (recommended as it's the first one I read, and I loved it), then there's a decent chance you'll become as hooked as I am.

Even if you hate detective fiction, you could still be able to take pleasure in these. Hill plays continual games with the form and shape of the crime novel. Some books turn out not to feature a crime, some end unsolved and, in at least one, the wrong person is convicted of the crime and the real murderer never found, or even suspected. Novels can be underpinned by Emily Dickinson's poetry, the first world war or the 1980's miners' strike.

Right: will stop as am starting to gush.
posted by Hartster at 1:47 AM on April 5, 2005

Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson

Yeah, I was going to suggest Cryptonomicon. My dad liked both (and Chandler), so I think there's some crossover appeal.
posted by yerfatma at 4:11 AM on April 5, 2005

The other Napoleonic series I've read is the Alan Lewrie series by Dewey Lambdin. While other captains wine and dine, Captain Alan "Ram-cat" Lewrie gets into a series of baudy scrapes and beautiful women.

Also consider the Sano Ichiro mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland. It's samurai noir!

The series I always recommend is the Fletch series by Gregory Macdonald. Witty and sharp, read'em before Kevin Smith ruins the first book.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:37 AM on April 5, 2005

I really like Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January novels — that's not the best link, but it does give a summary of what they are and lists the first few novels. There are 8 now, all involving a free Creole man of color in 1830s/40s New Orleans.

Loads of research, the occasional cameo from a historical figure, and deeply entertaining.
posted by Katemonkey at 4:51 AM on April 5, 2005

They're a little dated now, but you might try one of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels. I believe there are 21 of them. They're very quick reads and, like O'Brien, MacDonald produces a set of characters you don't mind returning to over and over. There's no necessity to reading them in order. I always enjoyed The Empty Copper Sea.
posted by coelecanth at 5:21 AM on April 5, 2005

If you haven't tried Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels, you're really missing something.
posted by Marky at 5:39 AM on April 5, 2005

Another Vote for Flashman!

George MacDonald Fraser's anti-hero is a misogynistic poltroon (imagine the antithesis of James Bond) - but amazingly funny and always entertaining. Additionally the novels are very well researched and convey Fraser's love of the subject. On that same score, you could do little better than to check out Fraser's The Pyrates - a wonderful parodic love letter to all things piratical. It's willfully anachronistic, but is honest about it and does so only to incorporate every buccaneer and swashbuckler from Calico jack Rackham to Tyrone Powers.

Also, when I read an Aubrey-Maturin novels, I almost always read a Flashman novel next. They make a lovely chaser for O'Brian's heady brew.
posted by Verdant at 7:13 AM on April 5, 2005

Best answer: Since no one's mentioned him, may I suggest Allan Mallinson? Soldiery in the post Napoleanic world, which is an interesting way of approaching things.

1. A Close Run Thing: A Novel of Wellington's Army of 1815 (1999)
Honorable Company: A Novel of India Before the Raj (2000)
2. The Nizam's Daughters (2000)
3. A Regimental Affair (2001)
4. A Call to Arms (2002)
5. The Sabre's Edge (2003)
6. Rumours of War (2004)
7. An Act of Courage (2005)

If you liked O'Brien, you might like these. Hero's a bit of a stiff, but then the author's first career was (is?) as a real soldier, so you can forgive some of the creakier bits as still learning the ropes. Caveat- I didn't much like O'Brien. Reminded me more of Barbara Pymm than Forester (also noted a bit of episodic plagiarism from Hornblower in the one I read- no doubt he got over it later.) On the other hand, I did finish the two or three of the above I started, and the character does stay in mind.

But then, I'm more a Flashman/Dortmunder kind of guy. (And while we are mentioning popcorn books, try Richard Stark. This is one of Donald Westlake's pseudonyms, and the hero so Stark's books are the noir doppelganger of Dortmunder. Indeed, Dortmunder was the result of a misbegotten Stark book that kept turning funny. Author went with the flow and created a second classic. Fast reads, well written.)

One more - Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson. Six in the series. Light comedies of manners, they inspire fanatic devotion. There was a good televised version some years back, worth a look if your eyes get tired.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:42 AM on April 5, 2005

Best answer: Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson

Yeah, I was going to suggest Cryptonomicon. My dad liked both (and Chandler), so I think there's some crossover appeal.

Both of the above are great but if you really want the hard core addictive series of novels check out his Baroque Cycle. Three historical fiction novels set in the age of enlightenment. I finished the first 1000 page book in a couple days. Lots of information about the birth of our modern society in general, and lots of specific knowledge of Newton, the Royal Society, Leibniz, and the whole inbred family of european royalty.

Plus lots of seafaring episodes and pirates! By the end of the second book (by far the most swashbuckling of the books) one of the main characters finishes a journey around the world, giving you a wonderful overlay of what was going on in the world in the late 1600's.

Can't recommend this series enough.
posted by lips at 9:44 AM on April 5, 2005

I second the Raj Quartet, Mary Renault, and Travis McGee (and if you like hard-boiled detectives at all, you have a world of joy waiting for you in Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler). I was excited about the idea of Alan Furst, but found myself disappointed by the one book I read; I much prefer Eric Ambler for '30s thrills: read The Mask of Dimitrios and go from there.
posted by languagehat at 9:58 AM on April 5, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks all for the ruthless barrage of wonderful recommendations. Wish I was a faster reader, and wealthier. I'm going to be mining this thread for new shopping list items for the next few years.

Let's see. I was already planning to read Pullman and Peake. As for Stephenson, I ordered Quicksilver a few days ago; seems like a good fit. (And thanks for the Stephenson/Fraser pirate tips; love them.)

I'm deeply skeptical about George R. R. Martin. Freebird, is Tad Williams that much better? I love fantasy, but I can hardly ever find anything good. Really, it's basically Tolkien and Pratchett, and some borderline fantasy such as Susan Cooper and Tim Powers.

People often mention Gene Wolfe as one who is able to transcend genres, and I agree that he's a great writer, a true stylist; but as with Harlan Ellison I find solid pulp when I dig under the shiny veneer. Not a criticism, just not always what I need.

I've tried reading The Sotweed Factor several times, but I think that book and I are incompatible. One reason might be that it's a satire of a type of book I've never read or been interested in reading.

I saw Alan Furst mentioned in a separate thread. Haven't tried him yet, but he does sound intriguing.

And as for the recommendations for noir, I'm not so sure. I didn't mention Ellroy because I like crime fiction, rather because he exemplifies (at least with the LA trilogy, which what I've read) a type of historical fiction that feels particularly authentic and subtle. Plus, I love the jagged prose.
posted by gentle at 3:29 PM on April 5, 2005

new Flashman, by the way
posted by cosmonaught at 5:51 PM on April 5, 2005

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