By Joseph Olshan
Updated November 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

During the last few years, Patrick O’Brian, veteran author of historical maritime fiction, has developed such a cult following of rabid readers that now his publisher is reissuing his earliest novels. In 1959, before O’Brian wrote Master and Commander, the first novel of what is now called the Aubrey/Maturin series, he penned The Unknown Shore, a story based on British commodore George Anson’s harrowing circumnavigation of the world in 1740. The HMS Wager, one of Anson’s fleet of ships, becomes separated from the brood as it is sailing around South America and eventually founders off Patagonia. Privation, drunkenness, and mutinous activity winnow out the crew members who make it to the inhospitable shore. In this early novel O’Brian’s prose feels a bit more arch than it does in his later work, but his narrative skills are already in full relief, just as his main characters, Jack Byron and Tobias Barrow, are clearly the prototypes for two of the author’s later creations, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. A-