Harper Collins, 1969, 352 pages
This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, Royal Navy, 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 food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the road of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.
Patrick O'Brian was a highly regarded historical novelist of the "My Research, Let me Show You It" School. Master and Commander introduces us to Lieutenant Jack Aubrey, who is twiddling his thumbs (and diddling his commanding officer's wife) in Minorca watching his career tick by, hoping that Santa will bring him a ship of his very own. And Santa does! Aubrey gets a promotion and is given command of the sloop Sophie.
The Sophie, it turns out, is kind of a crap ship with a crap crew, as Aubrey quickly finds out. Among other things, it needs a ship's surgeon. Fortunately, Aubrey met a physician (not a surgeon, he is informed in no uncertain terms) named Stephen Maturin the previous night, and although they didn't hit it off immediately, you can tell from their first coffee date that this will be a bromance to last twenty books.
I'm just kidding about the slashing, though. O'Brian never implies that Aubrey and Maturin's relationship is anything other than the manliest of manly friendships. Though there is an awful lot of sodomy referred to. (Aubrey, being a fairly progressive sort for a 19th century British Royal Navy officer, says, "I don't like it, but I hate to see a man hanged for it.")
As a sea adventure, Master and Commander is typical of what you get in these sorts of yarns: lots and lots of infodumps about nautical terminology and ship taxonomies and descriptions of how the sailors hewed this and yarded that and steady on tack and level port open topsails blah blah blah. Sorry, not really that interesting to me, but reputedly O'Brian was very, very good at getting his details right, everything from naval maneuvers to Naval customs to military history, and the battles are not as boring as I may be implying, as the exposition condenses down to orders and maneuvers and the roar of cannons while ships are engaged. It's between the battles when Stephen Maturin, a landlubber prior to being recruited by Aubrey, gets everything explained to him in great nautical detail by the helpful crew, thus allowing O'Brian to educate the reader.
Characterization isn't notable in this book, though Aubrey and Maturin have interesting backgrounds, particularly Maturin, who it turns out was involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 - as was Aubrey's first lieutenant, James Dillon. This is a source of tension between the two Irishmen and their unknowing captain.
The plot proceeds in a straightforward manner for a serial: Aubrey whips his crew into shape (only somewhat literally), turns the Sophie into a pretty kick-ass vessel for its diminutive size, and fights several battles, including one in which he takes on a vastly superior foe, a Spanish frigate several times the Sophie's size, and wins. The Sophie spends most of the book tooling around the Mediterranean looking for rich Franco-Spanish merchantmen and hoping that peace doesn't break out before they get another shot at a prize. The distinction between Royal Naval vessel and "privateer" was mostly academic at the time.
The chase and battle scenes are quite exciting, and you can feel the anticipation and fight-or-flight tension of Aubrey and the crew in every engagement. The author writes in a style that is as true to the era as his details: although Master and Commander was published in 1969, one could easily believe it was actually written during the time period it's set in. O'Brian does a decent job of building interpersonal conflict and character development into the story as well, though it's clear that the battles are where his heart is at, and the ships are sometimes less wooden than the characters. Aubrey and Maturin are a rather entertaining couple though, a sort of Holmes/Watson except that Aubrey is actually likable too. He's a plump, jolly fellow who is brave, ambitious, unabashedly greedy, and possessed of enormous appetites, both gustatory and carnal. It's the latter that seems to get him in the most trouble: besides coming down with the clap (Maturin gives him a cheerful speech about how his lady has been "too generous in her kindness, too liberal with her affections," obviously enjoying Aubrey's consternation), it turns out that diddling your commanding officer's wife can have deleterious effects on your career. But despite having his glory stolen and facing a court-martial, there's not much to spoil about the ending, since there were, after all, twenty books in this series.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
This is a glorious movie, but it splices together the plots from several different O'Brian novels, and bears little resemblance to the first book. It portrays Aubrey further into his career, and takes place off the coast of South America, rather than in the Mediterranean. Aubrey's ship in the movie, the HMS Surprise, is much larger than the tiny Sophie, though as in the book, its primary adversary is a larger, more advanced ship against whom it's severely outmatched, and Aubrey wins by cunning and a little luck.
The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin isn't the highlight of the movie, though it's a centerpiece, with Maturin playing the cynic in counterpoint to Aubrey's blustery military enthusiasm. Most of the other characters are completely different.
Great movie, and really captures the cramped quarters of shipboard life (though again, the ship in this movie was a lot larger than the one Aubrey commands in Master and Commander), as well as the sheer terror of standing on a wooden ship facing an enemy broadside, with nothing but luck preventing a cannonball from tearing you in half. It's a faithful adaptation of the feel of the first book, but not the story.
My only complaint is Russell Crowe as Aubrey; he delivers a fine performance, but if only Hollywood didn't have to cast every main character with movie star good looks. Beefy, red-faced, VD-prone Jack Aubrey ain't no Hollywood leading man.
Verdict: Master and Commander is a salty sea adventure with booming cannons and ample verisimilitude, and obviously the inspiration for many military SF imitators like Elizabeth Moon and David Weber. It's long on detail and action, a bit short on character development, and the pace is not always brisk. I liked it well enough, and might try another one of O'Brian's novels in the future, though I think you'd have to really, really love you some sailing ships to want to read twenty of these.
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