Jenny has been telling me for ages and ages now that I need to read Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Aubrey/Maturin series, which chronicles the adventures of sea captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic wars. Even though Jenny is one of a very small number of people who can get me to read something merely by recommending it, I’ve resisted this particular suggestion. I’m not a huge lover of adventure stories, and the maritime setting just didn’t appeal to me. However, now that I’m nearing the end of the 34-volume Morland Dynasty series, I’m ready for another long series to take its place, so it’s time to give these books a try.
Master and Commander begins with what in a romantic comedy would be described as a “meet cute.” Aubrey and Maturin are seated side-by-side at a concert, and Aubrey is thoroughly enjoying the music. At the end of a piece, he leans back in his chair and turns toward his neighbor:
The words ‘Very finely played, sir, I believe’ were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.’
Jack Aubrey’s face instantly changed from friendly ingenuous communicative pleasure to an expression of somewhat baffled hostility: he could not but acknowledge that he had been beating the time; and although he had certainly done so with perfect accuracy, in itself the thing was wrong.
The two men’s mutual love of music allows them to get past their initial irritation with each other, and soon Jack has invited Stephen to join him as ship’s doctor on the Sophie, the sloop that will be Jack’s first command.
The book tends to be episodic, with battles seeming to occur almost at random, as ships just happen to encounter one another at sea. This aspect of the story surprised me, although I’m not sure why. Of course, sea battles wouldn’t be planned in advance. How could they be? The enemy could be anywhere—or nowhere.
O’Brian immerses the reader into the sea-faring life, throwing around terms like bosun, foc’s’le, and mizzen and expecting the reader to keep up. The fact that Stephen is a landlubber helps a bit because we readers get to listen in on his own orientation to the ship, but Stephen has the advantage of being there and being able to see the topsail and the jib. I looked up a few things online when I got completely muddled, but following Jenny’s advice, I just let a lot of the terminology wash over me without worrying too much about it.
For the most part, it works to not sweat the details of the plot because the central characters are so delightful. O’Brian writes great period dialogue, and the conversations between the characters are both funny and revealing. Jack’s ebullience and Stephen’s coolness makes a wonderful contrast, and the complication presented in the person of James Dillon adds just enough drama to the relationship. Dillon, Aubrey’s second in command, is a longtime acquaintance of Maturin, and their shared history is not something they want to make public. An additional tension comes from Dillon’s dislike of Aubrey, which leaves Maturin in the middle, loyal both to his past comrade and his new-found friend. These three men and their relationships were my favorite aspect of the book, but there were plenty of other scenes that I enjoyed. Especially impressive is how quickly the story can turn from comedy to tragedy to terror to celebration, all in the space of a few chapters.
Although my confusion kept me from falling in love with this book, I enjoyed parts of it very much and can see the potential for great pleasures ahead. Jenny is convinced that I’ll be hooked on the series by Book 3, so I do want to give the books that much of a chance. When I read the next book (or the one after, since the next is mostly on land), I may get a copy of A Sea of Words, a lexicon companion to the series, from the library, just to see if it helps with the difficult bits. I don’t really like stopping to look things up frequently, so I’m not sure it’ll help. It may just be that I need a little time to get my sea legs.