The Wine-Dark Sea

December 03, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Many a watch had been spent in sending up preventer backstays, braces, shrouds and stays and in attending to new earings, robands, reef-points, reef-tackles for the courses and spilling- lines for the topsails, to say nothing of new sheets and clewlines fore and aft.” Any questions? If you don’t know a roband from a reef-point and think that earings have something to do with ears rather than ”the yard or gaff,” then while reading one of Patrick O’Brian’s popular seafaring novels you’re periodically going to feel well, at sea. There’s a lot of treacherous nautical terminology in The Wine-Dark Sea (Norton, $22), but if you can manage to stay afloat while navigating around the argot, you can enjoy the book nearly as much as the sort of fool who goes out on the ocean in a boat with a sail attached to it. For one thing, you can readily identify with one of O’Brian’s pair of heroes, Dr. Stephen Maturin, the inquisitive naturalist, surgeon, and secret agent who doesn’t know much about new sheets and clew-lines either. ”What are pintles?” he asks Jack Aubrey, the rugged sea captain who is his friend and partner in violin-cello duos. ”Those right-angled pieces in front of the rudder that hook into rings or braces as we say at the back of the stern-post so that the rudder can swing like a door on its hinges,” Aubrey explains, leaving us pretty much where we started. As readers of O’Brian’s 15 previous novels featuring Maturin and Aubrey know (they first appeared 23 years ago in Master and Commander), what draws you into these books is O’Brian’s uncanny sense of period, place, nature, and creature. It is circa 1812, and Maturin and Aubrey are on the Surprise, a privateer in British service that chases and captures the American ship Franklin. But the plot counts for less than the wonders encountered along the way: a Homeric wine-dark ocean that portends a stunning undersea volcanic eruption; Inca traces and traditions; llamas and vicunas; the tonic properties of the coca leaves Maturin chews; vast icebergs; and whales, rare birds, and apocalyptic weather. If you’re looking for an old-fashioned adventure story buoyed by ; encyclopedic curiosity, this is it. A- -L.S. Klepp

The Wine-Dark Sea

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The Wine-Dark Sea

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