Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian: A-

From the back cover:
it is the dawn of the 19th Century; Britain is at war with Napoleon’s France. Jack Aubrey, a young lieutenant in Nelson’s navy, is promoted to command of H.M.S. Sophie, an old, slow brig unlikely to make his fortune. But Captain Aubrey is a brave and gifted seasman, his thirst for adventure and victory immense. With the aid of his friend Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and secret intelligence agent, Aubrey and his crew engage in one thrilling battle after another, their journey culminating in a stunning clash with a mighty Spanish frigate against whose guns and manpower the tiny Sophie is hopelessly outmatched.

I can’t help but compare this to the Hornblower series, so let me get that out of the way. Jack Aubrey is so Hornblower’s point-for-point opposite that I have to wonder if it’s intentional. He loves music, he craves companionship, and he’s not terribly clever. In fact, he’s a little dense and given to verbal blundering. His Lieutenant, who spends most of the book critical of Jack, gets it right when he says he possesses a “beefy arrogant English insensibility.”

I can see why Stephen Maturin finds Jack to be endearing, but I personally claim the good doctor as my favorite character. He’s somewhat morally ambiguous (or at least not opposed to questioning established conventions) and sardonic, but also affectionate and resourceful. I like how his ignorance of nautical matters is used to acquaint the reader with the workings of a ship, and I actually had a moment of squee later on when he ends up steering the sloop in a crucial moment.

I’d heard this series described as “Jane Austen on boats,” and I can see from where the comparison springs. There are several social gatherings with the rich and foolish in attendance and the manner in which some of them cluelessly spout very silly things would be quite at home in one of the interminable parties Emma Woodhouse was forced to endure. The writing is pretty witty in general, though O’Brian doesn’t stint in depicting the soldiers as the drunken, violent, filthy, whoring fellows the majority of them are.

By far, the best part of the book is the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin. There are several scenes between them that I love to pieces, like when Stephen is called upon to escort a misbehaving Aubrey from a party, the time Aubrey consults an imaginary Stephen for advice, and the awesome scene where Aubrey freaks out about a snake and climbs on a chair while Stephen nonchalantly laments a hole in his stockings. They are really quite slashy. I approve.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a very useful website. The book’s dedication is written in Latin and, because I am the kind of person who cannot abide not knowing what it means, I looked it up on Google and was led to A Guide for the Perplexed, a site with the ambitious undertaking of translating all foreign phrases in the series. I feel very fortunate to have discovered the site before I had ventured farther than the Author’s Note, so that I need never dwell in ignorance!

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  1. mark thorpe says

    Yeah, the obscure naval refereces were more work than fun. Ive hardly been on a boat in a lake let alone a battle ship during the Napoleonic wars, so throwing naval words at me as if I’m supposed to already know them just doesn’t work for me. Which sucks because they seem like interesting reading.

  2. I learned some by reading the Hornblower books and there is some explanation given to Stephen throughout, but yeah… I don’t really understand some of the things they’re doing when they’re undergoing a bunch of tactical maneuvers. Usually it’ll make sense in context, at least.

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