Patrick O'Brian is best known as the author of the novels about nineteenth-century naval life featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. This is the first novel in which O'Brian used a naval setting; it deals with an earlier period and is partly based on fact. It describes a voyage undertaken by Commodore (later Admiral) Anson and his crew in 1740, during which they sailed round the world, coping with storms at Cape Horn, disease, and inadequate maps, and fighting and capturing a Spanish galleon laden with treasure. The events of the voyage are seen through the eyes of Peter Palafox, the son of a poor Irish parson, who signs on as a midshipman as a youth and grows to manhood through the vicissitudes he endures, making a fortune in prize money in the process.
The story stands up pretty well as a historical novel in its own right, but inevitably its main appeal will be to readers who have already been enchanted by the Aubrey-Maturin series. In comparison with those books it is prentice work; the characters are less vividly realized and less complex, and the book has a curiously dreamlike quality, particularly in its opening pages, which assorts oddly with its basis in historical fact.
Although it is not mentioned in the novel, there is an interesting footnote to this historicity, for the Centurion, the ship in which Peter Palafox sails, had a few years earlier been used for the first sea trial of Harrison's chronometer.