Historical Musings #29: All at sea

After last month’s post in which I discussed my feelings about battle scenes in historical fiction, this month’s is on a similar topic: scenes set at sea – which may or may not include sea battles! With air travel being a relatively recent invention, it’s obvious that travel by ship or boat is going to play a significant role in many historical fiction novels. This is something I have often struggled with, but that is starting to change, thanks largely to my decision to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. This is the beginning of my review from February 2013 of the first book in the series, Master and Commander:

I do not usually like books set at sea. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep track of the nautical terms and as soon as I see words like ‘mainsail’, ‘fo’c’sle’ or ‘bosun’ my brain just seems to switch off. As a fan of historical fiction, I have been unable to avoid this entirely – after all, until the 20th century the only way to cross the sea was by ship and many historical fiction novels do involve a sea voyage or two – but the thought of reading a book where seafaring forms a major part of the plot is always quite daunting for me.

Four years later, and I am now in the middle of the sixth book, The Fortune of War. Although I still can’t claim to understand all of the naval terms or to follow everything that is happening in the sea battles, I feel that I can understand and follow as much as I need to!

Some other historical novels I’ve read with strong nautical elements:

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

She Rises by Kate Worsley

The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Some of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels also feature passages set at sea, as do Diana Gabaldon’s – as well as The Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull, which I read a few months ago and loved, and the book I have just finished reading, Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye. In books like these though, the sea travel arises naturally from the story, as a way of getting the characters from one point to another, rather than the author sitting down to specifically write a nautical novel. As I said in last month’s post on battles, if I have already formed a connection with the characters and care about what happens to them, I will be interested in reading about any situation they find themselves in, even if it’s something I might otherwise find boring or challenging.

How do you feel about historical fiction set at sea? Do you have any good ship-based books to recommend?


New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Circe by Madeline Miller – I’ve been waiting for another book from Madeline Miller since reading The Song of Achilles in 2012. This won’t be published until 2018 (I got a copy from NetGalley) but it’s the story of the witch from the Odyssey and sounds intriguing!
* The Tudor Heritage by Lynda M Andrews – This is a reissue of a book about the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign, originally published in 1977.
* The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes – I’ve read a few other books by Margaret Campbell Barnes so couldn’t resist this one about an illegitimate son of Richard III.
* The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – Having enjoyed Katherine Clements’ previous two novels I was delighted to receive this 17th century gothic ghost story from NetGalley too.

* And one non-fiction book: Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir – I know very little about most of the medieval queens featured in this book, so I’m expecting to learn a lot!

Have you added any new historical fiction (or non-fiction) to your shelves recently?

20 thoughts on “Historical Musings #29: All at sea

  1. whatmeread says:

    I think I got about six books into the series before I got tired of how stupid Jack was about women, but I found the naval background and even the battles really interesting. Of the other books you listed, I’ve read Captain Blood and the Ghosh trilogy, which I thought was excellent. Other books I have read with a strong seafaring element are the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy (excellent), Ahab’s Wife (very good but not to everyone’s taste), Moby Dick (rough going), The Sea Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning (good). I’m sure there are more but that’s what springs to mind.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t mind Jack, but I do prefer Stephen. I’m still enjoying the series so will continue with it for at least a few more books. I haven’t read Moby Dick and don’t know if I will ever want to, but all of the other books you mention sound interesting.

      • whatmeread says:

        Maybe you haven’t gotten to the part where Jack starts making a fool of himself over women yet. I don’t think they start that immediately. Moby Dick is a hard chore.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve just read Jenny Diski’s memoir ‘Skating to Antarctica’ which in part is about a late 20C cruise to the southern continent (though we don’t hear about the return journey). Not much in the way of nautical terms though!

    Not much in the way of historical fiction either, unless you count an alternate history fantasy set in the early 20C, far to the north near the Arctic Circle! (Philip Pullman’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the North’, as it happens.) Possibly ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ counts, but it’s a month ago that I read it.

  3. Fariba says:

    I’ve added all those books to my TBR. I have the opposite feeling about nautical themed historical fiction. I am obsessed with books set at sea. I’m currently reading We, The Drowned. It’s marvelous!

    • Helen says:

      I hope one day I’ll enjoy reading books set at sea as much as you do. At least I don’t try to avoid them anymore! We, the Drowned does sound great – I’ll have to think about reading that one. 🙂

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I enjoyed reading Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem which being about pirates spent a fair bit of time battling on the seas 😀 As for my TBR, I have recently added historical fiction Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragorn by Alison Weir (which is great as I already have the next book about Anne Boleyn), and nonfictions Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir and Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford 🙂 Happy historical reading!

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I thought Sea of Poppies was great. My latest historical was News of the World by Paulette Jiles, set in Texas. I have a bit of a Texas theme going lately. For me, the sea is not the thing, but as you say, the characters and the story.

    • Helen says:

      I loved Sea of Poppies and the other two books in that trilogy. Although I struggle with nautical terms, as long as the characters and story are good I don’t mind whether a book is set at sea or on land!

  6. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve read and enjoyed some of the Hornblower books. I’ll be reading Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family soonish.

    • Helen says:

      I want to read Blood and Beauty first, so it will be a while before I get to In the Name of the Family. The Hornblower books have never appealed to me, but as I’m starting to feel much more comfortable with nautical books now I might think about trying one. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them!

  7. Laurie says:

    “How do you feel about historical fiction set at sea? Do you have any good ship-based books to recommend?”

    I am not a big sea fan, however, I just finished Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and was hooked 🙂

  8. Yvonne says:

    Over the years I’ve read quite a few books with nautical themes including a few of Patrick O’Brien’s, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho novels and most of the Hornblower ones. I’m fascinated by how the big sailing ships were manouevered, tactics etc. so I don’t mind reading about them. An added bonus is that my nautical vocabulary is growing! I particularly enjoyed the sailing scenes in Armada by John Stack. A lot of historical novels set in Australia usually begin with a sea voyage thanks to transportation. Three favourites of mine that start off this way are Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin, A Cargo of Women by Babette Smith and Behind the Sun, the first book in Deborah Challinor’s convict girls series.

    The Coffin Path is one I’d like to read. Any historical ghost story set on the Yorkshire moors grabs my interest immediately. I noticed you’re currently reading By Gaslight. I picked up this chunckster from the library last week. The cover caught my attention first, but the synopsis is very intriguing. Other books added to my TBR recently are The Black Rocks of Morwenstow by John Wilcox (sort of nautical as it is a mystery involving wreckers and smugglers in 1840s Cornwall), The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan (set in Kent, 1940) and The Other Hoffman Sister by Ben Fergusson (set in German South West Africa and Berlin, 1902 to 1924).

    • Helen says:

      It makes sense that Australian historical novels would start with a sea voyage – I haven’t read any of the three you mention and will have to investigate! The John Stack book sounds interesting too. Although I’m still not a huge fan of nautical fiction, I’m starting to enjoy it more than I used to, so thanks for your recommendations.

      By Gaslight is certainly a chunkster! It’s an interesting read so far but is taking a very long time to get through. I’m hoping to be able to devote more time to it this week and try to get it finished.

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