The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian (1993) 308 p.

Book sixteen of the Aubrey-Maturin series and book four of their five-book circumnavigation of the globe, The Wine-Dark Sea sees the Surprise move on from the Polynesian island of Moahu for the western shores of South America. In other words it’s another chapter of O’Brian’s giga-novel, and a fairly diffuse one. It begins with strange and unprecedented quirks of ocean behaviour and air pressure which both Aubrey and Maturin are at a loss to explain, but which the reader has probably figured out from the cover illustration, yet which nonetheless marvellously presents another unexpected wonder of the big wide watery world. We then encounter the French revolutionary from Moahu with his dangerously democratic ideas which come to influence the lower decks; Stephen’s mission to attempt to turn the government of Peru towards Britain rather than France; a dangerous escapade for Jack and some officers in a small boat; and probably the book’s most memorable chapter, a naturalising sojourn for Stephen in the Andes featuring llamas, condors, bromeliads and altitude-sickness-inducing heights.

“If you are as mistaken about the birds as you are about my head for heights, Molina will have no great burden to carry, at all,” reflected Stephen, who had often heard, each time with deeper dismay, of the spidery Inca bridges upon which intrepid Indians crossed torrents raging a thousand feet below them, even hauling immobilized animals over by means of a primitive windlass, the whole construction swaying wildly to and fro as even a single traveller reached the middle, the first false step being the last. “How long does it take to fall a thousand feet?” he asked himself, and as the troop set out he tried to make the calculation; but his arithmetical powers were and always had been weak. “Long enough to make an act of contrition, at all events,” he said, abandoning the answer of seven hours and odd seconds as absurd.

I think this is also the first of the novels I’ve read since revisiting Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is both a better film and a better adaptation than I remembered. The Jack and Stephen of the film are not quite the Jack and Stephen of the books, and yet I still found the actors’ voices slipping into my internal narration as I read, and some uncharitable part of my brain almost wishes Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany’s careers would fall on hard times so they end up on Cameo and we can pay them to read out passages of dialogue.