This, the first in the series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against the thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the flood, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the road of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.
This is the first of a series of twenty novels and you really do need to read them in sequence, (1. Master and Commander, 2. Post Captain, 3. HMS Surprise etc.),as the author tends to tell you something once and then expects you to remember it. If you start with The Far Side of the World, number ten, because of the film, you will be hopelessly adrift; nothing the characters do or say will make any sense, and the plot is very different from the film so you will not recognise what you are reading.
Start with this one then, book one and don't just skim it for the adventure story. Climb the rigging with the lubberly Dr Stephen Maturin and listen as he has explained to him the masts, yards and sails of the Sophie. After only a few pages you know the difference between the foremast and the mizzen, the stays, tops and ratlines. You will benefit from getting some maps; Minorca and the Spanish coast east of Gibraltar (look them up as soon as the place names come out of the text). You want to get a feel for the shape of the coast, harbours and ports. Don't spend any money, just five minutes with the Google map facility and print them off, nicely magnified so you get all the capes and points. Now you can feel the tension as the Sophie ducks under the enemy guns, steals a prize and races for safety with a half dozen frigates in hot pursuit; all the naval engagements make a whole lot more sense; you might even mark the positions of the vessels and follow their movements; Patrick O'Brian gives you enough description to clearly visualise every detail and this is where he scores most of his points and wins his lifelong devotees. The author had vast resources of knowledge about naval engagements of the period and most of the action is painstakingly recreated from real events, as reported by those who took part in them. This is far more than historical fiction, it is the bringing back to vivid life of a period of our relatively recent history.
Next if you find the story intriguing but the nautical terms frustrating (you are not alone in this), you might consider purchasing a reference book: The World of Jack Aubrey by David Miller (I paid £5.99), a shortish, hard-backed book for the twenty-first century reader, full of diagrams and explanations and with a glossary of technical terms. The mysteries of the stunsail, the use of the log, the bells of the watch and the use of the glass will all become clear, along with good descriptions of the various vessels that feature, from lateens to bum-boats, sloops and brigs, the points of the compass and the different fighting styles of the British and French men o' war (British preferred solid shot aimed at the hull that sent explosions of splinters through the enemy crew, wheras the French preferred chain and grape shot to disable and capture.
A further book is a worthwhile purchase, Admiral W.H. Smyth's The Sailor's Word-Book (Conway £9.99). This fat period tome comprises over 14,000 nautical and naval terms, every technical word used by Patrick O'Brian is in there, described in crisp clarity, the Admiral spent the seven years of his retirement from 1858 - 1865 working on this mine of information and the Aubrey/Maturin enthusiast will have this reference close by at all times.
To bring the experience fully to life I would also recommend a day out to the Portsmouth historic harbour; a couple of hours inhaling the air aboard the H.M.S. Victory touching the cables and absorbing the perspectives will be well spent.
If you find yourself shouting, "Vast that anchor", to your wife in the Sainsbury's car park, and your kids buy you a parrot for Christmas then it's possible that you might be allowing your enthusiasm to carry you a little too far, but until then, enjoy the journey.
I have to confess, I found this one slow going, particularly the first half of the novel. Our introduction to the characters and the setting is slow and drawn-out and features a lot of exposition, much of which might almost as well have been written in a foreign language, as far as I'm concerned. Despite having made it through the entire Horatio Hornblower series, I still do not remotely speak nautical-ese. And though Forester had a remarkable talent for writing in such a way that I could follow all the action even without understanding most of the terminology, O'Brian seems to foolishly trust that I'll pick it up as I go along. So it was often a bit of a struggle. Still, there are things here that I really like. I like the way O'Brian refuses to romanticize shipboard life without ever getting too grim. I like the sense of humor, which ranges from the dry to the bawdy, and tends to pop up at surprising moments. And I like the combination of the bluff, beefy, not overly educated man of action Captain Aubrey and the introverted, intellectual, entirely-too-obsessed-with-birds Dr. Maturin, which is, or at least has the potential to be, a delightful odd couple friendship.
Overall, I find myself responding to this book almost exactly the way I often respond to the pilot episode of a well-regarded TV series. There's too much awkward set-up to get through for things to feel satisfying, and I'm not yet sufficiently invested in the characters to feel properly engaged. But I can see the potential for something really worthwhile. So, despite my difficulties, I fully intend to keep going with this series. Which is good, I suppose, as I already own several of the later books.
I would now say read the second or third volumes first, since they are filled with more of the social realities (i.e., Diana Villiers) which ultimately gives the novels their expansive, may we say Dickensian scope. Newcomers overwhelmed and put off by the nautical jargon would find these more welcoming perhaps.
And if there is another writer who can drop the reader into another place and time, and do it with such subtle command of the language and sensibilities of the time, I've not come across him or her. I find myself unfairly comparing his prose style to almost all other fiction I read.
Well I'm here to say that it came close to stopping me, in fact. Not by the virtue of the text's impenetrability, but by the sheer ratio of naval encyclopediatrics to human action. Plenty things happen in the book—friendship, jealousy, hatred, loyalty, romance—but those are delivered to the sleepy reader at strange points in the story, and often in a puzzlingly abbreviated fashion. Three pages of deck-swabbing, then suddenly we've captured a ship and retired for dinner in Barcelona and are now discussing Irish politics in a paragraph and half. In the end, it's difficult to get a solid sense of the book's social order, of the politics at large, and of the very characters.
There's still an addictive, peppy quality to the plotting, but I'm not sure if the actual experience of focusing intensely to distinguish the tutorial on running a ship from the events happening to its crew has been fun enough to keep me coming back for all the other books in the series.
At this first outing, I didn't feel O'Brien compared well. Forster's books are far more accessible, being written in a straightforward, modern style--you open the novel and you're immediately absorbed into the adventure. O'Brian, in contrast, writes in a period style--his favorite author reportedly was Jane Austen, and this is the world of Captain Wentworth of Persuasion. O'Brian also throws a lot more naval jargon into his story than Forster, so at times my eyes glazed over. And judging from just this book, Hornblower comes across as the more impressive creation. He's rather a Sherlock Holmes of nautical fiction--a brilliant commander with plenty of tricks up his sleeves--it's no accident Hornblower was the inspiration for Captain Kirk of Star Trek. Captain Jack Aubrey doesn't impress in this first novel with his brilliance. Luck and aggression seem more the source of his success (and more than a bit of good leadership and seamanship admittedly). The book also never pulled itself together as a novel--it doesn't build towards anything and one thread of conflict never gets resolved--or at least it is in a very unsatisfactory way so I wonder what the point was of James Dillon's character.
On the other hand, note these are called the "Aubrey/Maturin" books. Hornblower is very much isolated and alone. An introvert, although he trusts and cares about his subordinate, Lieutenant Bush, they're not intimates. Captain Jack Aubrey is much more extroverted, social--but also, he has a good friend in Stephen Maturin, who he first meets in this novel, and who becomes his ship's surgeon. And the books are as much about him, a brilliant physician and naturalist as they are about Aubrey. And since at the start Maturin knows nothing of the navy, through him, he and the reader are able to learn about the ships and service together. I did like how Aubrey and Maturin played off each other--their growing friendship was the highlight of the book.
Reading this first book (and people tell me the series only gets better) I can understand why some find them so addictive--though I think it'll take quite a bit more of the series--and better books than Master and Commander--before I feel the same affection for Aubrey as I do for Hornblower.
When a key character dies late in the book, I was left with a kind of flat feeling for the rest of the book. This is because of the way it was handled, that he was so very there and then so very gone. He goes so quickly, off stage, and we see so little of the impact on his mates. Clearly, they mourn him, but more weight is given to their irritations earlier in the book than to this devastating loss. Still, an excellent book.
"Master and Commander" has nothing to do with the synonymous movie starring Russell Crowe. It has the same grittiness, the same smell of the sea and the sound of snapping canvas, but the book is vastly superior in every way.
This book is the first of a TWENTY BOOK SERIES (all caps so you Harry Potter/Wheel of Time maniacs can wrap your mind around a single work of fiction spanning 5000 pages) called by fans "The Aubrey-Maturin books", after the co-protagonists, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and a more delightful, fully-realized buddy team you will not easily find in fiction. Aubrey is a blusterous, reckless, jovial Epicure who happens to know how to fight a brigantine. Maturin is a gentle, introspective, meticulous scientist with a taste for books. Neither are perfect, but both are good company for each other and their conversations make for great tension and reading.
The author does absolutely nothing to spare the reader from the ins and outs of a Napoleonic Era fighting ship. By page twenty your head will be swimming with unfamiliar nautical terms, but much to O'Brian's credit, by the end of the book you will know your stun'suls from your maintopmast gallants, your xebecs from your feluccas and your chasers from your twelve-pounders. The characters sound real and they exchange zingers that will have you chortling for days.
You can bet your flying jib I will be reading each and every single one of these books, and so should you.
Jack is made captain of the Sloop, Sophie. In his excitement at finally being made captain, Aubrey seeks out Maturin, with whom he had an unpleasant meeting with the previous evening, to apologize and invite to share a meal. During this time he learns that Stephen is a physician in need of employment as his current patient had recently died. Jack was in the market for a ship surgeon. It was kismet.
The Sophie engages in several battles, takes several prizes and Jack begins to make a name for himself; especially with what he has accomplished with such a small ship. We see the start of the Aubrey/Maturin great friendship, and meet fun characters that will stick with him through his captaincy like Pullings, Bondin and Mowett. All-in-all it was an interesting start to the long story f Aubrey/Maturin and I look forward to seeing how many books it takes for Jack to inherit the Surprise.
I've long been interested in reading Aubrey/Maturin, ever since having learned that it was a primary influence on Gene Roddenberry for the creation of Star Trek. This feeling pervades the book and is a delight to consider retroactively.
The style is a bit difficult because it isn't really comparable to contemporary literature that I'm familiar with - but anyone who can read Moby Dick for pleasure will be *more than* right at home. A solid 3/4 of the details and plotting are directly related to the composition of warships of the time period, and their hierarchy and disciplines. This can be dry, and whole pages can go by without ample context to translate the nautical terminology... and yet, it's a good read.
This is a series that is beloved by far too many for the considerate reader to dismiss. I imagine that it only gets better - because now I know my way around a sloop (or frigate, or man-of-war for that matter), and more importantly: because now we know our cast of characters.
The main two are Aubrey (Commander) and Maturin (Ships Medic... unofficial surgeon). Aubrey is so refreshingly NOT a Captain Kirk... in the sense that Zap Brannigan is Captain Kirk... but an imperfect temper-prone horndog whose judgement is clouded from time to time, but whose character is solid enough that you like him more for it. Maturin is your Spock (while technically being Bones - - or visa versa) - - he might as well be a different species from the other crew members (though he's blending well as time goes by). He's a science officer philosopher, the Laurel to Aubrey's Hardy. He manages to be far beyond the reader, and our entry point to seeing life aboard the vessel at the same time.
I look forward to reading more, as first books in beloved series that span decades are often a mere shadow of the goodness you find once the ball really gets rolling.
I found the main death of the novel (withheld to prevent spoiler) to be downplayed and under-explored.. and felt there were some serious loose ends that were never tied w/ relation to it - but that's life.
I did watch the movie of this once I was over 3/4 of the way through the book, thinking that if I didn't get what was going on in the book, the movie could offer some enlightenment. Boy was I soooo very wrong. The movie, which barely followed the book in any respect, was even more incomprehensible. I was really very disappointed because I think if a movie of this story was done correctly, it would be very interesting indeed.
Overall, I'm glad to have read the book, despite how difficult I found it. If you enjoy adventure stories and don't fear having to have a guide to get you through (unless you're fluent in nautical terminology already), I'd recommend this book.
For every adventurer Master and Commander is a must read. Every battle is played out in stunning detail. Life on a man-of-war could not be any more vivid.
Master & Commander is the first in the series, and I think I read somewhere that it was not planned as such but rather as a standalone novel. Not that you’d necessarily notice, as Master & Commander begins (with its two protagonists meeting for the first time during a concert) and ends (with Jack Aubrey being acquitted by a court-martial for having lost his ship) rather randomly, and the novel itself is mostly episodic without a clear plot arc that would span from beginning to end – one has the feeling it could have started and stopped pretty much anywhere. Which was probably intentional, because Master & Commander presents itself like a slice of life from early 19th century navy life, and a large part of the novel’s (and, indeed, the whole series’) appeal lies in the immediacy of its approach, gripping the reader’s attention and holding it even through pages filled so densely with naval jargon as to be close to incomprehensible, but also (and with greater ease and charm) through vivid descriptions of life on sea on a British war ship, both the everyday routine and the heart-pounding battles and breathless races across the ocean, and not to forget (probably O’Brian’s greatest strength, and something I’ll have to return when writing about later volumes) through the portrayal of characters that are quirky but plausible, and deeply likeable in spite of their many faults.
O’Brian has not quite found his rhythm yet in Master & Commander – the pacing is still somewhat unsteady and has not quite the easy flow of later volumes, the character of Stephen Maturin is still somewhat underdeveloped, and he really is overdoing it with the naval terms – even native speakers seem to find those often impenetrable. In parts, this reads not so much like a novel but more like a non-fiction account, and a fairly dry one at that, and getting through those parts can be a slog. But Master & Commander sets the groundwork for what is to come, so anyone wanting to explore the series should definitely start here. And it’s not like this was a bad novel, it has many delightful moments; it just falls short compared to what is still to come.
The praise and accolade for Patrick O’Brians 20-novel long Napoleonic naval series are worth attention. And I agree. This first one in the series was just great. You are instantly brought back to this period in time - with attention to detail and naval expressions and conversation.
In this first book we are introduced to our hero, Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and the beginning of his long-lasting friendship with Stephen Maturin, naturalist and naval surgeon.
Aubrey gets his first command and there’s ups and downs through the book as the newly appointed captain navigates the seas.
I couldn’t have asked for a better narrator in Simon Vance - but I regret the choice of listening to the novel. I needed explanations of the seaman’s terms and quaint expressions - and several times I was lost (at sea) and couldn’t figure out the naval tactics and ships positions.
When Jack returns to his lodgings that night, there is a dispatch from the admiralty waiting for him. It was his long-awaited promotion. He was to take command of the sloop HMS Sophie. Tradition wanting that a departing captain may take with him a number of his crew to his new command, Captain Aubrey (the multiple definitions of the title of, and of the rank of captain are well-described in the book) was left without a first officer and a doctor.
When doctor Maturin joins the crew of the Sophie to escape from his financial difficulties, they embark on a series of adventures that include a convoy mission, action against the Spaniards, a manhunt for Irish republican leaders, and an ill-fated courier job.
O’Brian does a great job at putting on paper the life of men at sea. He also makes smart use of the character of doctor Maturin for this purpose. An outsider to all things nautical, he uses the questions of the good doctor to explain the inner workings of the ship and the procedures and traditions of the Royal Navy, which is of great use to neophytes such as yours truely.
This book is a great starting point to a series of stories that have conquered the hearts of adventure fans and historical fiction nuts for decades. It is highly recommended!
The series has become a classic for good reason. O’Brian spares no detail in describing ship life during that time. The politics of each promotion or judicial case are like walking a tight rope. For me, I felt buried in the details at times.
BOTTOM LINE: Honestly, I really wanted to love this one more than I did. I struggled to stay interested in it and felt a bit relieved when I finished it. I think I’ll wait a decade or so and then maybe give it a try again.