Master and Commander

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.

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32 Responses to Master and Commander

  1. Megan says:

    I picked this up once and was frightened off by the all the ship jargon that had me totally lost. It sounds like if you can let go of some of that stuff that this would be a good read. I usually have a tough time doing that, but your review makes me think maybe I should give go ahead and give it another try anyway!

    • Teresa says:

      Letting it go worked well for me, mostly. It did help to study the ship’s diagram at the start of the book, but usually I made sure I knew the outcomes of the various battles. The relationships of the characters were the parts I focused on.

  2. Chris Harris says:

    Awesome! I am so glad that you are reading this series! It is absolutely, bar none, my most favorite historical fiction series. I agree with Jenny too, I think that once you read Post Captain you’ll be hooked, and then that’ll be reinforced with the third volume (one of my faves!), H.M.S. Surprise. I don’t know if you know this, but one of O’Brian’s very favorite authors was Jane Austen, and much of his writing really, really reminds me of Austen’s. There’s that absolute immersion in the Royal Navy of the Georgian Age, and O’Brian’s reliance upon using the vernacular. I do strongly recommend Dean King’s A Sea of Words and his Harbors and High Seas to help you ‘navigate’ the seas with Aubrey and Maturin. I have to confess that I have read all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, in order, at least half-a-dozen times, and they just get better and better. Have fun! Wonderful review! Cheers! Chris

    • Teresa says:

      I have heard that about Jane Austen, and I’m especially excited about Post Captain, as I read somewhere that it’s his most Jane Austen–esque novel. I could see glimmers of Austen in the dialogue here.

  3. Lisa says:

    Patrick O’Brian and Dorothy Dunnett are the best historical fiction writers I have ever read (and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Dunnett was a fan of O’Brian’s books), in large part because of the strength of the characters they create. I agree with Chris (above) about the Austenesque quality of the books – and that’s often how people describe the second book, Post Captain. The third, HMS Surprise, is probably my favorite of the series, though there isn’t a weak book in the series, to my mind. I have the reference books and find the maps in Harbors and HIgh Seas helpful but not essential to enjoying the stories. Welcome aboard :)

    • Teresa says:

      I love Dunnett for her characters, too, and I haven’t quite reached the same level of affection for O’Brian’s, I’m optimistic because they were absolutely the best part of this book.

    • Alex says:

      I asked the Dunnett Dorothy Society on Twitter if there was any proof that DD read PO, but they said no! However, the similarities are clear to any fan of both. Where can I find evidence of the connection?

      @Teresa: I’ve just finished Post Captain and it’s definitely “Austen-sur-mere”!

      • Teresa says:

        I saw your Post Captain review, Alex, but I just skimmed it, since I know I’ll be reading it soon. Glad to hear that you liked it!

  4. Jenny says:

    I can’t be objective about these, but you know how delighted I am that you’re finally aboard! Like Chris and Lisa, I think HMS Surprise may be my favorite, though honestly there are several others I think I may adore just as much. Oh, man, you’re making me want to read these through again, for a fourth time…

    • Teresa says:

      Ha ha! I don’t know if I’ll keep up the one-a-month pace I did with the Morlands (those are easier reads), but I’m happy to finally be giving these a try.

      (And I’ve been craving a Lymond reread. Maybe after this series.)

  5. Chris Harris says:

    Jenny, I know what you mean! I start thinking about these books again, and it makes me want to pick ’em up again. Another one of my favorites was The Mauritius Command. A couple of other real gems, in my opinion, are The Fortune of War and The True-Love. Truly some wonderful stories, and ever so well written. Scattered throughout are some of the most genuinely ‘laugh-out-loud’ moments too. Ahh, such great novels! Cheers! Chris

  6. Books on the sea usually aren’t my piece of cake especially because there tends to be alot of jargon that I don’t understand, and I end up getting lost.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve not read many books on the sea, but I do have the same problem. I’ve had good luck (with this book and others, like Sea of Poppies) just focusing on characters and not worrying about the other details.

  7. suzigun says:

    I too thought this would be a good series to read, but the detail on rigging etc etc was just too much for me. Still haven’t braved a second one.

  8. Word Lily says:

    Oh, I love these books! I devoured all my library had a few years ago, and I long to read them all, straight through, again. Such great characters!

  9. Danielle says:

    I have never heard the term meet cute–you learn something new every day! :) I love adventure stories and am not sure why I’ve not picked any of these up yet. It seems like quite a recommendation if you liked it enough to keep going. I’m back to read about the odious Annunciata (I shouldn’t be so mean)–and am determined to finish book six this week of the Morlands. I know I’ll fly through the other books if I can just get out of the Restoration…or read about some other characters.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh please be mean about Annunciata. I did not like her at all, not even in a “love to hate” way. I grew to tolerate her once she was less of a focus. I think it was about Book 8 that the series started to really cook for me.

  10. Susan in TX says:

    Oh, I hope you find your sea legs with these. I’m currently on #18 in the series, The Yellow Admiral, and I’m sad to be coming near the end. Enjoy!

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I know what you mean about being sad to be near the end. I’m two books away from finishing the Morland Dynasty (with the final book being published this year), and while they’re not in the same class as O’Brian, I’ll miss them tremendously.

  11. Sean DePalma says:

    One of my favorite movies but the book was a bit of a let down. One of the few times I’ve actually said that. Not a bad book but I excepted more.

    • Teresa says:

      I enjoyed the movie (and certainly had an easier time with it), but the book is altogether different. It’ll be interesting to compare to The Far Side of the World, which I think the film drew from more.

      • Chris Harris says:

        Actually, the Peter Weir movie drew plotting elements from several of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. Generally, I thought the film was brilliant, and I think it really did help expose Patrick O’Brian’s novels to many, many people that would have never read him prior to it coming out. I didn’t really mind that it was a montage. Cheers! Chris

  12. Victoria says:

    Oh so glad that you enjoyed this, even if you didn’t fall head over heels in love with O’Brien (yet). Post-Captain is a very different book after Master and Commander, and shows that O’Brien can do land as well as sea. What I love most about them, as you say, is the pitch-perfect dialogue and the platonic love affair between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. I love Jack’s puppyish enthusiasm and Stephen’s sardonic humour; and later in the series, as they develop and grow, I love that they continue to love one another despite their differences and their rivalries. It’s difficult not to beg you to read on immediately. I’ve only read the first 4 so far, and must read another one soon. Of those my favourite is definitely HMS Surprise. :-)

  13. Rebecca H. says:

    I read this book quite a few years ago, but never made it any farther. I enjoyed it, but had some of the same reactions you did, and I’m not so fond of super-long series, so I decided it wasn’t for me (my mind might change, though!). Hobgoblin loves the whole series and says it feels like one 20-volume novel, and I like the idea of that (if not exactly the reality of reading all 20!).

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny strongly encouraged me not to make up my mind until Book 3, which as you can see from the comments above is a fond favorite of many. I enjoyed M&C, but 20 books just like it? Meh. 20 books that are similar but mostly better? Yes, please.

  14. Chris Harris says:

    I would agree with the observation in Rebecca’s comment that it “feels like one 20-volume novel.” In fact, it really is written largely that way. They are three or four great story arcs that the 20 volumes take the reader through. While I suppose it is possible to read the novels independently, or willy-nilly, one would certainly miss those story arcs, connections and bits of back-story and character development that make this series the masterpiece that it is. Cheers!

    • Teresa says:

      I always like to read a series in order when I can because I do love to follow continuing arcs. That’s definitely my plan with these books. I’m just not sure how quickly I’ll get through the series. Maybe one every month or two. (One a month was great for the Morland dynasty, but those are easier reads. I might need to space these out more.)

  15. A coworker of mine was working on some Jane Austen-spin-offs and I told him to read an Austen. he read this book instead which I found hilarious (and no excuse – I still made him read Pride & Prejudice which he did enjoy).

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! That is funny, but from what I gather he could do worse for getting the style right, especially if he were to read Post-Captain. But reading Austen is definitely the better choice :)

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