"Impress ... an archaeologist, huh? Well, Ay reckon Ay would strike him just behind the shoulder with a twenty-four pound harpoon. Strike hard and fast, not too far back, see? My old man, he chanced on one of them things north-east of Spitzbergen in the fall of, lemme t'ink, 1897 was it, or 1898? It chawed up his long-boat something horrible, but they got fifty-three barrels of oil out of it."
This little-known early novel by O'Brian was first published in 1954, before The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore and well before the first Aubrey/Maturin novel, Master and Commander: I'd never heard of it, and snapped it up as soon as I noticed it in a Cambridge remainder shop.
It's a boy's own adventure, set some time in the 1930s (from internal evidence: the year is never stated). Protagonist Derrick, the orphaned teenage son of American missionaries, is learning seamanship aboard his uncle's schooner, the Wanderer, as they roam the South China Sea. He's all set for a life on the ocean wave until his elderly academic cousin appears with plans to send him off to school in England, sugaring the pill by promising that they'll journey by way of Samarcand.
Samarcand is, of course, about as landlocked as you can get: fans of O'Brian's nautical writing be warned. Apart from the first couple of chapters, the action is relentlessly terrestrial. Derrick and his companions (his uncle Sullivan, and Sullivan's good friend Ross; the Wanderer's Chinese cook, Li Han; three Mongol brothers, direct descendants of Genghis (or Chingiz) Khan; Professor Ayrton, Derrick's cousin and a great authority on Oriental archaeology; Olaf, Svensson, a Swedish sailor; and Chang, a disreputable hound rescued from shipwreck) encounter Mongol warlords, perfidious -- yet stupid -- Russians, bellicose lamas, priceless jade treasures and unseen monsters above the snowline. It's all very wholesome and heroic.
O'Brian's gentle mocking of idiosyncrasy, verbal and otherwise, is already there: the Professor describing himself as a 'hep cat' and gently correcting Derrick's attempts to teach him actual (i.e. non-grammatical) American slang; Li Han's surprising, self-taught English vocabulary; Olaf's long Swedish vowels and knack for anecdotes (there's a lovely one about a camel). There are aspects of the Professor that remind me of Stephen Maturin, and aspects of Sullivan (and Ross) reminiscent of Jack Aubrey, though they're at best prototypes.
It's a quietly bloodthirsty novel, informed by the attitudes of the period: physical punishment, quiet courage, perhaps a hint of racism. O'Brian's prose, though not as polished as it later became, is measured, and his dry wit is evident. An entertaining read, but a shadow of what the author later achieved.
Can't help wondering why The Road to Samarcand was never reissued, or even really mentioned, during O'Brian's lifetime (presumably he objected?) and why it's taken rather longer than his other early works (Hussein, Caesar: both published under his birth-name, Richard Russ) to appear posthumously.