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Nautical fiction is about as close to sailing the high seas as you can get these days. If that sounds a little depressing, remember that real sailors had to contend with all manner of disease, loneliness, bugs, pirates (who were not fun and not glamorous), shipwrecks, storms, mutiny, madness, poor (or non-existent) sanitation, frequent injury....basically, really bad stuff was lurking behind every coil of rope or powder keg, sometimes in them.
From that perspective, living vicariously through Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, Fletcher Christian, Ishmael, and Nathaniel Bowditch seems like a pretty great alternative. The fact that many of those characters were the inventions of seafaring men who knew what it was like out there on the blue and harsh ocean simply makes these stories all the more believable and fascinating.
It's usually not a good idea for writers to clutter their fiction with jargon—it can distract us from the narrative, frustrate us because we don't know exactly what's going on, or slow us down because we have to look up every other word. Stories about sailors, ships and the sea, however, need the technical terminology to help establish the authentic atmosphere, and in most cases it does exactly that whether you know the terms or not.
These are some of our favorite books at Exodus. Sailing maintains a romantic appeal that steamships and automated consoles have failed to render obsolete, and these writers give us exactly the elements we want: the danger, the fear, the glory. If you've got enough imagination to imagine running away and serving as cabin boy aboard a man o' war, you've got enough to imagine similar adventures on these pages.
Some of the best writers of all time wrote sea stories. Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville—men whose love of words enabled them to transcribe their love of the water for generations to come. As long as they're read, the creaking of masts and the crack of sails will remind us of the days before man believed he'd mastered the sea, when the sea clearly still mastered him.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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