By: Patrick O’Brian
Aubrey-Maturin series Book 1
I suppose I had heard the term before, but I didn’t realize I was reading a classic when I picked up Master and Commander at first. One day, my father asked what I was reading and I told him, and he immediately looked at me and said, “Ahh, Russell Crowe.” When I gave him a blank stare, he said, “Sara, his face is on the cover. It’s a great movie.”
So, if you’ve seen (or heard of..) the movie, you’re already one step ahead of me.
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian takes place in the “Royal Navy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” It focuses on the Sophie, a sloop in the British Navy. The captain, Jack Aubrey, quickly befriends the ship’s physician, Stephen Maturin, and the narrative follows a few cruises and trips the Sophie takes out of Port Mahon, Minorca.
That said, O’Brian doesn’t spend long on explanations. A few cursory descriptions are given by way of Dr. Maturin’s questionings of naval life unfamiliarities, like when Aubrey laughingly corrects Dr. Maturin’s misunderstanding of the terms “master” and “master and commander”. But these helpful explanations are paltry few.
(It wasn’t until AFTER I’d finished the entire book that I bothered to notice the detailed map of a ship with labelled sails and masts on one of the first few pages.)
O’Brian throws you in to the language of 1700s naval seamen and expects you to keep up. He writes in a curiously detached manner, not from his characters, but from the events themselves. I was never entirely sure what was important until a few pages after the fact. You almost don’t realize there is a plot until you look back and think about all that has happened.
At one point, Dr. Maturin bothered to muse on this theme, albeit in an indirect way, in a conversation with a Spanish captor:
‘And does it not seem to you that this suppression, this denial of the outward signs, and as I believe reinforcers if not actually ingredients of the distress — does it not seem to you that this stoical appearance of indifference in fact diminishes the pain?’
‘It may well be so: yes.’
‘I believe it is so. There were men aboard whom I knew intimately well, and I am morally certain that without this what one might call ceremony of diminution, it would have broken their…’
There’s a little bit of humor, a good bit of seafaring honor, some love and some lust, some tense and page-turning scenes, some foul language, some battles, lots and lots of male friendship.
It’s clearly a popular tale, and O’Brian wrote 20 and 1/2 books about Aubrey and Maturin before his death in 2000. The movie is highly acclaimed as well.
I feel like this is probably a really good book for a certain type of person (aka my father). It’s Hemingway-esque in everything but brevity, it’s a military book through and through, it’s chock full of nostalgic old-school pride, and it’s got highly complex character and character conflicts. It just wasn’t quite my cup of tea.
Suggestions for books similar to Master and Commander:
(for more by O’Brian)
Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian
H. M. S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian
The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian
(for themes of seamen)
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Odyssey by Homer
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
(for military-focused historical fiction)
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ground Rules by Renee Swann
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash